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Another vote set on pensions; Cullerton ‘not very optimistic’

Illinois Gov. PQuinn center arrives news conference Friday June 14 2013 Chicago after attending meeting with  House Speaker Michael

Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn, center, arrives at a news conference Friday, June 14, 2013, in Chicago after attending a meeting with House Speaker Michael Madigan, and Senate President John Cullerton in an attempt to solve the state's worst-in-the-nation $97

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Updated: July 16, 2013 6:28AM

Legislative leaders Friday agreed to a request from the governor to call a pension bill for a vote next week, but they said the new strategy appeared doomed.

Gov. Pat Quinn, meeting with General Assembly leaders, secured a commitment for a Senate vote on a House-passed version of pension reform. But Senate President John Cullerton said the identical legislation has gotten only 16 votes in the chamber when it needs 36 to pass.

A special legislative session on pensions is scheduled for Wednesday. Without action, Illinois’ nearly $100 million pension deficit grows by an estimated $17 million per day.

Emerging from the two-hour conference in Quinn’s office in the Thompson Center, Cullerton said, “We’ll be happy to accommodate him and it gives him a week to work on trying to get some senators to vote for this.” But he added that he is “not very optimistic there will be an opportunity to change 20 votes.”

Quinn also called on lawmakers to create a House-Senate conference committee to tackle the problem if there is a stalemate. The idea, common in Congress but rarely used in Illinois, got traction with Cullerton but not House Speaker Michael Madigan.

“I’m concerned on the conference committee that it’s an effort by the governor to distance himself from the process,” Madigan said.

Quinn’s new pitch was an acknowledgement that a proposal he offered Monday was headed nowhere. It called for the draft of a combination bill featuring both House- and Senate-endorsed language.

Cullerton has argued that his bill, which is more limited in its scope and financial impact, is likely to pass a constitutional challenge. He again called on Madigan to bring the version to a House vote.

Republican leaders came out of the meeting with bewildered looks. “I kind of felt like I was witnessing an awkward family fight,” said Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno. “It was uncomfortable. It’s clear that there isn’t an agreement — even close to an agreement — between the Democrats.”

The governor said a conference committee would at least keep attention focused on what he called the state’s “paramount challenge.”

Lawmakers “must do their job for the people of Illinois so I can do my job, which is to sign this long overdue measure into law so we can move our economy forward,” Quinn said.

The Madigan-backed version, which the House passed but the Senate voted down with only 16 votes in late May, would end existing, compounding cost-of-living increases for retirees, hike retirement ages and increase employee premiums.

That plan, Senate Bill 1, is estimated to cut $21 billion off the nearly $100 billion in unfunded liabilities that four of the state’s five retirement systems face.

The Cullerton plan would save about a third of that. The Senate president contends it is more likely to meet a constitutional rule that pension benefits not be “diminished or impaired,” but the extent of that guarantee is open to dispute.

Public-sector employee unions back the Cullerton plan, which would give state retirees a series of choices in which they could keep or delay getting 3 percent, non-compounding cost-of-living increases in exchange for giving up state-subsidized health care.

Conference committees are a rarity in Springfield and authorized under House and Senate rules for times when the two chambers can’t reconcile their differences on a bill.

The committees are stocked with 10 members, five from the House and five from the Senate, and Democrats would hold the majority, just as they do in the full Legislature.

If the committee can’t agree on language, new conference committees can be appointed by the legislative leaders. If the panel reaches an agreement, it’s then voted on by each chamber.

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