Quinn, lawmakers expected to reconvene on pensions in July - KMSP-TV

Quinn, lawmakers expected to reconvene on pensions in July

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CHICAGO (FOX 32 News) -

After collecting tens of thousands of dollars for themselves on Wednesday, members of the General Assembly plan to kick the can of public employee pension reform down the road for at least one more month.

Gov. Quinn spokeswoman Brooke Anderson said Tuesday that he would summon them back to Springfield "in early July" to enact a "comprehensive pension reform plan" that has eluded them for years now.

House Speaker Michael Madigan and State Senate President John Cullerton have acceded to the governor's request for a conference committee on the state's $97 billion pension crisis. To be appointed Wednesday, it would include members of each chamber, with majority Democrats outnumbering minority Republicans.

While other legislators return home, the conferees would attempt to negotiate a reform plan that not only eliminates eventually about $100 billion in unfunded pension liabilities, but can pass both House and Senate – effectively ending the long-lasting stalemate.

When summoned to a special session, legislators are entitled to so-called "per diem" of $111 each day for room and board; plus once-a-week compensation for travel costs.

Unfunded public pensions are already a dominant issue in early campaigning by candidates for governor in 2014. Republicans and Democrat Bill Daley have blasted Quinn's failure to achieve a solution during 4-1/2 years as Illinois's chief executive.

Spokeswoman Anderson hailed the Madigan-Cullerton promise to create a conference committee: "The first time they have agreed to a means to an end."

"The governor has been very clear in these conversations that this is an emergency and there is a price for inaction," Anderson added. "Lack of action by the General Assembly is hurting taxpayers, hurting our economy and shortchanging our children. Recently, Illinois' credit rating was downgraded twice in one week."

Madigan spokesman Steve Brown told the AP Tuesday that the House and Senate maintain their "distinct" positions over fixing the pension problem. But he said Madigan is working on a process for lawmakers to continue searching for a compromise through a so-called "conference committee" designed to focus on a single piece of legislation and not try to wrestle various proposals.

"We've been trying in the House to fashion a bipartisan coalition -- to try that approach and see what can be gained going in that direction rather than individual bills out of individual chambers," Brown said.

Cullerton supports the committee idea too, his spokeswoman Rikeesha Phelon said.

"It's time to move toward resolution and Cullerton was on board from the moment it was discussed," Phelon said.

The committee idea was suggested by Quinn at a meeting with the legislative leaders last week. But Madigan dismissed it, suggesting it was a way for Quinn to avoid pressuring lawmakers harder to forge a compromise.

Madigan instead pushed for another Senate vote on a House plan that would unilaterally impose pension changes on retired state workers, including increasing the retirement age. The measure received just 16 votes in the Senate during the session that ended May 31, but would need 36 votes for passage during Wednesday's special session.

The Senate supports a union-backed rival plan that would give retirees options over pension benefits. Many argue it would not save the state as much money as the plan Madigan supports. However, advocates for the Senate plan argue it is more likely to survive an expected legal challenge, since negotiated retirement benefits are currently protected by the state constitution.

A conference committee has not been used in the Legislature since 2005, when lawmakers used it to vote on a non-discrimination bill. There's no guarantee that what such a committee drafts would become law, because it ultimately would have to be approved by both chambers -- where it could run into the same problems as the existing legislative proposals.

Under Quinn's original idea, the committee would have 10 members. Madigan and Cullerton, both Democrats, would each appoint three legislators to the committee. Senate Republican leader Christine Radogno and House Republican leader Tom Cross each would appoint two committee members.

As Wednesday's special session approached, Quinn made some calls to members of the Senate to try to rally support for Madigan's pension fix, but a number of members continued to oppose the plan.

"He called me last week and he called me this week," said state Sen. Dan Kotowski, a Park Ridge Democrat who supported the Senate's own plan. He said the governor told him to "do what you think is best" but urged him to vote for the Madigan pension proposal "because pension reform is urgent for the fiscal health of Illinois."

State Sen. John Mulroe, a Chicago Democrat, said his caucus resented the demand to vote for the House-backed bill.

"As a Senate we are united right now," Mulroe said. "We can't just roll over because the other chamber says we should."

Lawmakers were scheduled to hear testimony on pension plans during committee hearings Tuesday ahead of this week's special session.

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The bill under consideration is SB1.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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