With clock ticking, still no pensions deal after Illinois leaders meet

January 5, 2013

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File: In this Nov. 2012 photo, Illinois Speaker of the House Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, argues legislation while on the House floor at the Illinois State Capitol in Springfield, Ill.

Despite meeting for two hours on Saturday, legislative leaders and Illinois’ governor were not able to come up with a compromised deal to address the state’s $95 billion unfunded pension obligations.

The political stalemate appeared to make some progress toward finding a solution on Friday, after House Speaker Michael Madigan said he was taking a controversial proposal off the table in an effort to pass a bill.

That proposal called for shifting the costs of suburban and downstate teachers onto the backs of local school districts rather than the state. Madigan said Saturday those school districts have been getting a “free lunch” for years. Many Republican lawmakers say shifting those costs would put a financial burden on schools and could force local property taxes to go up.

Madigan told reporters Saturday the closed-door meeting was productive, but no deal has been made yet.

“I’m just anxious to pass a bill,” Madigan said Saturday. “I think that we ought to find a bill that we can all agree upon and pass that bill. Unfortunately there are still differences among the participants and my recommendation is that we move beyond the differences and just find a bill that we can pass so that there will be some action taken on the question of funding for these pension systems.”

Madigan said he still thinks it’s possible to pass a deal before Wednesday. The winners of November’s election are sworn in on Wednesday, marking the start of a new session. If legislation is not passed by then, lawmakers would have to start the legislative process of passing a pension proposal from scratch.

Madigan said the main sticking points are not new issues. State Senate President John Cullerton has raised concerns that cutting pay increases in a state employee’s retirement is unconstitutional. Earlier in the session, the Senate approved a bill that deals with part of the pension systems, offering state employees a choice between cutting pay increases they would receive in retirement or receiving health care benefits.

Senate Republican leader Christine Radogno called Saturday’s meeting “marginally productive.”

Gov. Pat Quinn announced Friday that a “breakthrough” on pension reform discussions had been reached when Madigan said he would take the cost shift to local school districts off the table temporarily. Quinn has said reforming the pensions is the state’s top priority and that the costs of pensions are so great that it is forcing cuts to the funding of education and other state programs.