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Brown: House Speaker Mike Madigan wants a deal now, usually gets what he wants

DuPage County Board Chairman Dan Cronmakes point during his State County address Monday September 24 2012. | JCunningham~For Sun-Times Media

DuPage County Board Chairman Dan Cronin makes a point during his State of the County address on Monday, September 24, 2012. | Jon Cunningham~For Sun-Times Media

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Updated: February 7, 2013 6:42AM

There were no smiles on the faces of anyone emerging from Saturday’s closed-door summit of Gov. Pat Quinn and legislative leaders on how to solve the state’s pension funding woes.

Quinn didn’t come out at all.

That was the bad news for those hoping for an agreement.

The good news was that House Speaker Michael Madigan told reporters afterward that he wants a pension bill passed by the time the Legislature finishes its lame-duck session Tuesday night.

Past performance tells us that when Madigan is of a mind to pass a piece of legislation, he will pass that piece of legislation.

The details of any pension fix still appeared to be very much up in the air after the two-hour meeting in Quinn’s office at the Thompson Center.

Madigan allowed that differences remain. Republicans intimated that some of the major remaining differences are among the Democratic leaders themselves.

But all parties were careful to avoid saying anything to blow up the negotiations, which seemed a hopeful sign.

Just when it looked as if Illinois’ political leaders were prepared to wrap up their legislative business next week without even making a serious stab at fixing the pension mess, the picture changed dramatically Friday.

Practically out of nowhere, Quinn offered a glimmer of hope that a deal could finally be in the works, revealing that Madigan had dropped his insistence on an approach Republicans had cited as the main obstacle to a deal — shifting the responsibility for suburban and Downstate teacher pensions to local school districts, just as Chicago taxpayers are responsible for city teachers’ pensions.

Having come to work Friday working up my righteous indignation about how our politicians were going to fail us again, I came away thinking for the first time in a long time they might actually face up to the crisis.

Leaving the Thompson Center in the snow on Saturday afternoon, my outlook was somewhat more sober. This is still a long ways from getting done in just three days, although one day is all it really takes when the right people are in agreement.

As I say, the most encouraging sign is coming from Madigan, who always is the key player in Springfield.

The speaker called Saturday’s session a “productive meeting” with “a lot of good ideas exchanged” and said he’s eager to pass a bill.

Madigan made clear that he still wants the cost shift to be done, describing the current arrangement as a “free lunch” for those school districts. But he said he will wait until the spring legislative session to push his plan. By then, Democrats will control super-majorities in both chambers of the General Assembly.

When the speaker speaks, you can take him at his word. But you also have to look for the nuance.

My interpretation: He was a little frustrated by whatever transpired over the previous two hours but will apply himself to forging a deal. If things go south this time, we’ll have a hard time blaming him.

Senate Republican Leader Christine Radogno stopped by the microphones just long enough to offer a slightly different spin, calling the meeting “marginally productive.”

“We still obviously have a long ways to go,” said Radogno, who was the first to suggest that one big hurdle is to get the Democrats on the same page.

“They can’t even decide whether Chicago is going to be in or out of this program,” she said, referring to whether changes to city pension funds will be part of the deal.

Senate President John Cullerton and House Republican Leader Tom Cross ducked the microphones.

Another cause for optimism was Quinn’s meeting Friday with a contingent of DuPage County Republican legislators, rounded up by their county party chairman, Dan Cronin, a former state lawmaker who now chairs the DuPage County Board. The Republican legislators didn’t pledge their support to the deal Quinn said is coming together but sounded cautiously optimistic they could when they see the final details — and Cronin made clear he will be leaning on them. That could help Cross get on board, too.

Republicans will have to be careful to avoid being embarrassed by their own dirty little secret: that some of the most conservative GOP legislators oppose pension reform as determinedly as the most liberal Democrats.

They do because they represent Downstate districts with large constituencies of state workers employed at universities, prisons and other state facilities.

If Quinn and the legislative leaders can come up with a solution that puts the state on sounder financial footing while preserving the pensions of its workers, they need to do it now. No more delays. No more excuses.

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