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Government State

Quinn asks lawmakers to combine 2 pension plans

CHICAGO – Gov. Pat Quinn proposed a compromise Monday to solve Illinois' nearly $100 billion pension crisis, but it's unclear whether the powerful Democratic House speaker will agree to the plan.

Quinn asked lawmakers to craft legislation that would include two leading rival pension plans — one advanced by House Speaker Michael Madigan and the other by Senate President John Cullerton.

Madigan's plan, which is widely regarded as having the most cost savings, failed in the Senate last month. It unilaterally imposes pension changes on workers and raises the retirement age.

Cullerton's plan, which gives state workers options as to what benefits to receive in retirement, was not called in the House before lawmakers adjourned May 31. Union's say it's fairer, and Cullerton contends it has a better chance of being upheld by the state Supreme court.

Quinn proposes that lawmakers vote on a bill that combines the two proposals at a June 19 special session. Madigan's plan would be the primary plan and Cullerton's would serve as a "backup" in case Madigan's is rejected by the courts.  The legislation's implementation date would be pushed back until next June so as not to require a "supermajority" — three-fifths of a chamber's votes — for passage.

The "A and B" plan, Cullerton explained, makes the bill easier to be called.

But Madigan, who at a news conference described his own plan as the single best piece of legislation, would not commit to calling the bill in the House if it passes the Senate next week.

"This is like a lot of things in legislation, you can make it complicated if you wish or you can keep it simple," Madigan said. "I think this is the time for the governor to step up meet with the Senator Cullerton and individual senators and vote for the House pension proposal."

Madigan has argued that his plan is constitutionally sound because the courts give legislatures wide discretion in times of crisis.

Still, Quinn expressed hopes that Madigan and Cullerton — two Chicago Democrats who have worked with one another in the Legislature for more than 30 years — will work together to pass the hybrid legislation.

"I appeal to them to work together to put this priority on my desk," Quinn said.

Illinois' five public employee retirement systems are $97 billion short of what's needed to pay benefits as currently promised to workers and retirees, due largely to years of the Legislature voting to skip or short the state's payments.

The hybrid idea is similar to a piece of legislation that Cullerton first advanced months ago that would have given the courts a choice between two competing pension plans.

Some House Democrats described the idea as disingenuous. By having two plans, they argued at the time, the courts were essentially invited to strike down the tougher proposal.

The annual pension payment now is about $6 billion — an amount that takes money away from areas such as education and public safety, and that will continue to grow each year until lawmakers act.

Quinn's call for a special session on the pension issue drew critics, who say the session — like one the Democratic governor from Chicago called last year on the same topic — will be a costly waste of time if no deal was in hand by the time lawmakers came back together.

The governor tried to meet with Cullerton and Madigan last week about the issue, but only Cullerton showed up.

Republicans blasted Democrats' handling of the pension crisis. Senate Republican Leader Christine Radogno described Monday's meetings as part of a practice of "secrecy and exclusion that has provided only failure."

Since the Legislature failed to act on pensions, two Republicans have announced they're running for governor in 2014. They said the inaction showed a lack of leadership by Quinn, who once said he was "put on earth" to solve the problem.

Quinn declined to look beyond what might happen in the special session next week.

"It's important we work for next Wednesday to get the job done," Quinn.

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