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Cullerton: Issue could bypass panel

CHICAGO (AP) – A solution to the Illinois pension crisis could be reached during the fall legislative session, even if the committee tasked with solving the crisis remains split, Senate President John Cullerton said.

Cullerton, a Chicago Democrat, told the Associated Press in an interview that lawmakers could bypass the committee and call a vote through another legislative route, thus skirting the requirement for the plan to be signed by six committee members to be considered by both chambers.

According to an AP survey released Monday, five of the committee’s 10 members – four Republicans and a Democrat – still had concerns with a proposed $138 billion savings plan being pushed by top Democrats, including Cullerton.

“We don’t have to get locked into this conference committee,” Cullerton said. “We can just say, ‘Hey, we got a nice compromise here, $138 billion, put it on another bill.’ We don’t need these people to sign this bill.”

It remains unclear whether Cullerton and House Speaker Michael Madigan would unite to put the plan on the floor through another avenue, as passage of any proposal will need bipartisan support from both chambers.

Steve Brown, Madigan’s spokesman, said Tuesday he wasn’t aware of any discussions of using another method to get a pension reform proposal to a vote if the committee has not reached a consensus.

“We want a plan that has substantial savings and it’s probably going to be a plan that would need bipartisan support to pass. Either now or whenever. That’s the goal.”

Lawmakers are under considerable pressure to act on pension reform following years of unheeded calls for them to pass a savings plan. Years of skipping or shorting payments have resulted in multiple bond rating downgrades, with key funds being diverted from schools and social services.

The committee tasked with finding a solution to the $97 billion liability was formed four months ago when lawmakers reached an impasse on competing plans.

“I understand the importance of passing a bill now because of the bond markets, the rating agencies. It would help people in the primaries to say they did something,” Cullerton said.

Recent demands by Republicans on the committee – three of whom are running for higher office next year – for additional cost-cutting measures to be considered in the proposal, could delay a vote and Cullerton says that is eroding Democratic support in the Senate.

“Every time they (GOP) want to save more money ... it makes it more difficult for me to get the votes for it,” Cullerton said.

Cullerton acknowledged in the interview Monday that votes on pension reform and other high profile pieces of legislation, including gay marriage, also could be pushed into the new year for practical purposes.

By law, legislation passed during veto session must come with a three-fifths majority approval to be effective immediately. Legislation passed with a simple majority would push an effective date to next June.

The still-evolving plan that would save $138.9 billion over 30 years includes reducing 3 percent annual compounded cost-of-living adjustments in retirement benefits to half of the rate of inflation. But it also would reduce employee contributions by one percent — a concession to state employees for other sacrifices.

Cullerton’s support represents a significant departure from a plan that he sponsored in the spring. That plan, which according to Senate estimates would save $58 billion over 30 years, would have given employees a choice of the benefits they would receive during retirement — a provision that Cullerton said gave it a greater chance of withstanding a court challenge. A different plan backed by House Speaker Michael Madigan would have saved almost three times that much by cutting pension benefits across the board and raising the retirement age.

Among the other issues that could arise during the legislative session beginning next Tuesday include approving special tax breaks for Decatur-based Archer Daniels Midland company to keep its global headquarters in Illinois.

Cullerton said he’d back incentives only if the company were to pledge there was not a net job loss in the Decatur area.

“It would be nice if we didn’t have to play this game, but we have to,” he said.

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