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Doug Finke

Not-so-great expectations

Pension reform compromise still appears unlikely

Pension reform compromise still appears unlikely

Illinois lawmakers will return to Springfield Wednesday amid low expectations they will agree to a solution for the state’s pension problems that has eluded them for more than 2 years.

Lawmakers will meet in a special session to address pension reform still with no agreement between the House and Senate on the best way to rein in pension costs.

After a meeting Friday between Gov. Pat Quinn and the four legislative leaders, Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago, agreed to again call a House pension bill for a vote in his chamber. The Senate has already twice voted down versions of the House plan.

“It really doesn’t look like there is much movement,” said Sen. John Sullivan, D-Rushville, even before the Chicago meeting that produced no movement.

“The Senate has been willing to sit down and try to work out a compromise, but the House and the speaker just seem to be locked in on [the House plan]. It’s already been voted down in the Senate. We just can’t really see any desire to sit down and try to come to a mutual agreement.”

“We were all there, both chambers, for 5 months, and we weren’t able to accomplish very much,” said Sen. Sam McCann, R-Carlinville. “I’m not quite sure what they think bringing us back for an afternoon will accomplish. If [the leaders] don’t have agreement, then nothing will come of it.”

So far, there is no indication of an agreement. House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, is adamant that the Senate should adopt the House reform plan that makes unilateral changes to pension benefits.

In March, the Senate voted on a bill that was nearly identical to the House reform plan. It got only 23 of the 30 votes it needed to pass.

In May, after the House narrowly approved the reform plan backed by Madigan, the Senate took it up. That time, it got only 16 votes, seven fewer than the nearly identical plan got just 2 months earlier. Only six of the 40 majority Democrats in the Senate voted for the Madigan-backed plan.

“We have seen how the Senate feels about the House pension reform bill,” said Sen. Andy Manar, D-Bunker Hill. “The Senate has voted on the House plan. The House hasn’t voted on [the Senate plan]. I don’t view that as productive.”

The Senate approved Senate Bill 2404 that contains a reform plan negotiated between Cullerton and public employee unions. Unlike the House plan, it gives workers a range of choices to make in changes to their pension benefits. It saves less money than the House plan, but Cullerton believes it has a far better chance of surviving a court challenge.

However, the House has never voted on the Senate version. In fact, Madigan filed an amendment to the bill last week that would eliminate the choices and replace them with the House reform plan.

Madigan has indicated he doesn’t believe the Senate plan saves enough money, and that approving it would result in the state having to address pension reform again.

“What’s been frustrating is [determining] what is the dollar amount they think needs to be saved,” Sullivan said of the House. “What is the money [Madigan] wants to get to? Once we have that number, let’s see ... what we can negotiate.”

That may present its own problems. There have been suggestions the union-backed Senate plan could be changed to increase the savings to the state. However, the could cause public employee unions to withhold their support.

“Any changes to that legislation would not be in keeping with the agreement between the coalition and the Senate president,” said Anders Lindall, spokesman for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. AFSCME is a member of the We Are One Illinois coalition of public employee unions.

Lindall said the House should vote on the plan that got 40 bipartisan votes in the Senate.

“It spares workers and retirees, and at the same time, it yields substantial savings to the state and is specifically designed to meet a constitutional test,” Lindall said. “We believe the bill has the same strong, bipartisan support from rank-and-file lawmakers in the House.”

Earlier in the week, Quinn resurrected an idea first suggested by Cullerton to combine the House and Senate plans and approve both of them. The House plan would take effect first, and if the courts struck it down, the Senate plan would be used.

However, by the end of the week, Quinn had abandoned the idea.

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