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Illinois lawmakers create pension reform panel

SPRINGFIELD – Illinois lawmakers came to a special session on pension reform, they saw, they formed a committee, they collected per diems for their trouble and they left.  

The House and Senate on Wednesday approved creating a 10-member committee to develop a pension fix that reconciles deep differences between reform bills passed by both houses. Gov. Pat Quinn called for the special session after lawmakers adjourned May 31 without approving a plan to address an unfunded pension liability now approaching $100 billion.

Wednesday’s vote creates a “conference committee”, a rarely-used tool to reach consensus when the House and Senate reach an impasse. The committee will be made up of 10 members – Senate President John Cullerton and House Speaker Michael Madigan will each get three appointees, and House Republican Leader Tom Cross and Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno will each get two.

Another special session is scheduled for July 8 to vote on whatever legislation the committee develops. But state Rep. Robert Pritchard, R-Hinckley, said an agreement could take longer to reach.

“It may take longer than three weeks. I agree this is urgent, we have to move forward,” Pritchard said. “The goal is to get legislation that all parties can say, ‘Yes that’s fair.’ That’s the way you avoid litigation. That may take longer than July 8.”

Sen. Dave Syverson, R-Rockford, said the legislative leaders will have to work together in conjunction with the conference committee, but it would require compromise on everyone’s part.

“Here, we have a wide chasm between the two proposals,” Syverson said, referring to bills Madigan and Cullerton backed. “If you’re looking for a compromise that’s even somewhere in the middle, you’re talking both sides having to give quite a bit.”

The House and Senate passed their own versions of pension reform during the spring session, but neither Madigan nor Cullerton called the other’s bill for a vote. Madigan felt the Senate bill does not go nearly far enough, and Cullerton insisted the House bill violates the pension guarantee in the Illinois Constitution and would not survive a court challenge by the state’s powerful public-sector unions.  

Madigan and Cullerton, both Chicago Democrats like Quinn, adopted differing plans to catch up more than 30 years on the pension debt after decades of state underfunding and what critics call overly generous benefits. The differences between the two powerful figures overrode the fact voters last year granted the Democrats supermajorities in both houses, meaning they can pass legislation without Republican votes.   

Madigan rewrote a Senate plan that applied only to downstate and suburban teachers. The House plan increases by 2 percent what state employees must contribute to their pensions , and raises the retirement age for workers younger than 45. It also limits the 3 percent cost-of-living adjustment by calculating it based on $1,000 for each year of work, and raises the year when retirees can be eligible for it.   

Cullerton said the House bill blatantly violates the constitutional provision that public pensions “cannot be diminished or impaired.” He crafted a bill, backed by public-sector unions, that gives workers and retirees a choice of either keeping their 3 percent COLA and not getting state health insurance, or keeping health insurance upon retirement and getting a smaller COLA.   

Quinn called for a special session the week after lawmakers adjourned, and as two of the three major bond rating agencies further downgraded the state’s credit rating, which is the worst among all 50 states.  

“This is an emergency, and the taxpayers of Illinois are depending on the General Assembly to produce a real solution that erases our pension debt and supports economic growth. As I’ve repeatedly made clear, taxpayers cannot afford gridlock on this paramount issue,” Quinn said in a statement.  

Rep. Tom Demmer, R-Dixon, felt the conference committee was a step in the right direction.

“It could be another dead end, but it’s another avenue we need to explore,” Demmer said. “We’re hearing more about the need for pension reform. There are very few options left.”

Both Pritchard and Sen. Tim Bivins, R-Dixon, noted a similar situation occurred with concealed carry, which was passed earlier in the spring and now awaits Quinn’s signature.

“It may have the chance,” Bivins said. “We’ll have to wait and see what they do.”

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