CHICAGO — When it comes to the future of the nation's third largest city, Chicago's mayor and Illinois' governor appear to agree on much, including that addressing the state's massively underfunded pension systems is a top priority.
During a forum Wednesday, Gov. Pat Quinn and Mayor Rahm Emanuel suggested that the school pension system in particular need to be examined. Quinn has suggested that schools should contribute more, while Emanuel has said the entire system is unfair with a burden of suburban schools falling to Chicago taxpayers.
Both addressed financial challenges facing Chicago and Illinois during joint appearance hosted in part by the Chicago Tribune. It was called "Chicago Forward: The State of the City and the State."
While the two Democratic leaders have made announcements together in the past, it was a rare laid-back public discussion between the two and offered several light moments.
When asked what he would like most from the mayor in the coming year, Quinn said one of Emanuel's personality characteristics stuck out.
"The mayor is a persuasive fellow," Quinn said drawing laughs from the crowd, which included Chicago aldermen and political experts. "We have to have a better budget in Illinois. We do have to do very hard things like restructuring Medicaid and strengthen the pension systems and having a budget that invests in education. I'd ask the mayor to use his persuasive ability with legislators of both parties to help us get to that point."
Emanuel said he wanted Quinn to address pensions, saying the state's fiscal crisis is a challenge in attracting companies to the state. He said that the issue must be fixed or property taxes will have to go up. Neither offered up specifics on what they should be done to restructure the pension system, saying nothing has been ruled out.
Illinois faces a deep financial hole, with unpaid bills of roughly $8 billion, rising Medicaid costs and a state-employee pension system that's underfunded by about $83 billion. Quinn's proposed budget includes deep cuts, including cutting $2.7 billion, or 14 percent, from Medicaid.
Still, both defended Illinois as a good place to do business, even as neighboring states have tried to lure business away. They cited Chicago as an attractive place to live and expressed interest in making improvements, such as efforts to clean the Chicago River.
Even when addressing a past point of contention over gambling expansion legislation, both appeared subdued. Last year, Emanuel had pushed for a measure to add five new casinos, including one in Chicago, and slots at race tracks. Quinn opposed slots at tracks.
"Many times our interests overlap. There are times they don't overlap. I don't think I'm a shy person and I have to be an advocate for my perspective," Emanuel said. "Many times they're aligned. There are times they diverge."
Both said they're in communication at least weekly, either directly or through their staffs.
The most impassioned speeches came when they were asked about the culture of corruption in the state. Both insisted that Illinois has changed and that they're working to change things.
Quinn noted that both of his predecessors — Rod Blagojevich and George Ryan — are serving prison sentences for corruption but said that things have changed since he took office, including a number of ethics reforms that he's signed.
Emanuel said, "We are pushing against a history and a system day in and day out to change the standard."