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Most committee members backed bigger pension cuts

Published: Thursday, June 20, 2013 11:07 p.m. CST

CHICAGO – Eight of the 10 members of a committee tackling Illinois' $97 billion pension crisis supported a proposal to unilaterally cut benefits, but members say they're keeping an open mind as they begin working toward a compromise.

Lawmakers voted Wednesday to form a bipartisan committee to try to end a stalemate between the House and Senate on how to address the nation's worst state pension shortfall, which was caused largely by years of legislators skipping or shorting the state's pension payments. The four legislative leaders appointed members from their respective caucuses, and the group is expected to begin meeting next week.

Gov. Pat Quinn has set a July 9 deadline for the committee to report back.

The Senate members are Democrats Linda Holmes, Kwame Raoul and Daniel Biss, and Republicans Bill Brady and Matt Murphy. The House members are Democrats Elaine Nekritz, Art Turner and Mike Zalewski, and Republicans Darlene Senger and Jil Tracy.

All of the House members and three senators voted in favor of a bill backed by Speaker Michael Madigan, a Chicago Democrat, that imposed across-the-board cuts. Holmes and Raoul preferred a union-supported bill sponsored by Senate President John Cullerton, also a Chicago Democrat, that gave employees and retirees a choice between health insurance and cost-of-living increases in retirement.

That doesn't necessarily mean the committee will stick with Madigan's plan or that it's a shoo-in to become law.

Members know any proposal they pitch must get through both chambers of the Legislature. In the Senate, majority Democrats have firmly backed Cullerton's plan, which they say is more likely to survive an inevitable court challenge and is more fair to public employees and retirees.

Madigan refused to call that legislation for a vote in the House, but Cullerton and Holmes have said it has enough support there to be approved by a two-thirds majority of members. The speaker, Quinn and the two Republican leaders – Rep. Tom Cross and Sen. Christine Radogno – favor Madigan's plan because it would save the state more money.

In a statement, a coalition of public employee unions known as We Are One Illinois said Wednesday that the committee was "heavily stacked" with supporters of the Madigan plan and that it would continue "to do everything possible" to advance the Cullerton-sponsored measure.

Holmes, who sponsored the union-backed bill with Cullerton and will sit on the committee, said she's willing to listen to all options.

"Any time you put together a committee like this you have to say OK, let's throw everything on the table and at least look at it," the Aurora lawmaker said.

Madigan and Cullerton each got to name three Democrats to the committee, while Cross and Radogno each named two Republicans. Madigan, Cross and Radogno all chose members who had voted in favor of their preferred approach.

Cullerton did the same in appointing Holmes and Raoul. But he also appointed Biss, who supported the Madigan plan and who proposed a similar measure of his own in the Senate, only to see it soundly defeated. A former math professor and state representative elected to the Senate in November, Biss has been deeply involved in the pension debate since his time in the Illinois House.

Speaking on the Senate floor Wednesday, Biss said he too would keep an open mind.

"What's necessary is for us to all get together and work to craft a compromise that addresses the problem and will (get) the approval of this chamber and the other chamber and the governor," the Evanston lawmaker said.

Cullerton said he expects the committee also will consider proposals from the University of Illinois Institute for Government and Public Affairs that would address state university pension funds, as well as efforts to shore up the Chicago Public Schools' pension system, which also has a massive unfunded liability.

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The Madigan bill is SB1. The Cullerton bill is SB2404.

Online: http://www.ilga.gov .

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Contact Sara Burnett at https://twitter.com/sara_burnett

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