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Quinn: solve state pension crisis before schools’

Updated: August 21, 2013 6:16AM

SPRINGFIELD-Characterizing the financial plight facing Chicago’s Public Schools as “an emergency,” Gov. Pat Quinn Friday remained insistent that lawmakers must first solve Illinois’ nearly $100 billion pension crisis before the city schools’ pension mess gets attention at the Capitol.

“I think you have to deal at the state level. It’s the biggest. Get that done. But I certainly am willing to work with folks locally in Chicago and elsewhere to resolve any challenges they have,” Quinn told reporters when asked if the state’s pension woes still take higher priority than Chicago’s.

Quinn said this week’s dramatic financial developments in Detroit, where officials in that cash-strapped city that has no way to pay $16 billion in bills took steps to declare bankruptcy, could be a precursor to things here without action on pensions in Springfield.

“We saw what happened in Detroit yesterday,” Quinn said. “It’s important that we pay attention here. This is serious. And it is an emergency. I really feel in this coming month it’s time to roll up our sleeves and get the Legislature to get this bill on my desk.”

“I think the state and Chicago Public School system are two very serious matters,” he said.

Quinn’s words were his first response to word from Chicago school administrators that they intended to lay off 2,113 teachers and other employees Friday, largely due to a giant pension obligation increase that’s straining the system.

But more importantly, with no mention of a special legislative session to help bail out Chicago’s schools and a continuing House-Senate stalemate over a state pension solution, the governor demonstrated that the prospects for a quick fix from Springfield to avert mass teacher layoffs appear dim.

Another strike against quick pension relief for the city schools is how poorly Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s last-minute push for that fared in May, an outcome Quinn helped influence by putting out word he’d block the plan if there wasn’t a statewide pension-reform bill on his desk first.

Emanuel’s legislative plan would have given the school system a two-year reprieve from having to make pension payments but was voted down 39-78 on May 31. Five Chicago Democrats voted against the mayor’s legislation and another voted “present.”

That kind of opposition, particularly involving members of the city’s delegation, showed Emanuel didn’t make a full-out push on the school pension issue until it was too late, with some in the delegation not getting calls on the bill until the actual day of the vote.

Appearing to take greater priority for the mayor last spring was getting funding authority for a massive McPier makeover that includes funds for a new multipurpose arena that will be used by DePaul University for basketball games. Quinn still has not acted on that legislation.

Among rank-and-file legislators, the mood against a pension “holiday” for Chicago’s schools hasn’t softened now that the consequences of the legislation’s failure are playing out in the massive pink-slip effort underway by school administrators.

“That roll call was pretty significant. The difference was pretty vast,” said state Rep. Elgie Sims (D-Chicago), who voted against the city pension plan. “They have to close a huge gap to get to the number [of votes they need]. I’m not sure about how likely it would be to revive that.

“If we were to do the pension holiday, which is one of the reasons I voted again this, it really would cost retirees and the system about $350 million over two years,” Sims said. “That’ll make the problem worse in the out years. In two years, they will be here trying to find another $350 million on top of the billion and whatever other problems are there to fix the problem. To me, that was not good public policy.”

One Republican critic of Emanuel’s failed plan was even more negative about its prospects in the wake of the Chicago teacher layoffs.

“They may come back and want to do this again. Go ahead,” said state Rep. Jeanne Ives (R-Wheaton), who voted against the bill after bitterly confronting its sponsor, state Rep. Elaine Nekritz (D-Northbrook), during floor debate for once voting to skip state pension payments and later expressing public regret for that vote.

“I’ll just repeat her words back at her,” Ives said Friday. “The teachers want it both ways. They want their jobs. They want their fully funded schools, and everything that comes with that: new textbooks, technology, upgrades, referendums on buildings. Then they want their rich pensions, as well.

“At this point, the taxpayers have had enough,” Ives said. “I’ll call them out for it every time.”

Nekritz didn’t show any interest Friday in trying to revive the failed Emanuel legislation but stopped short of the governor’s line-in-the-sand stance that state pensions have to be fixed before Chicago’s schools’ pensions can.

“I don’t believe it’s a requirement the state get solved first before we address the Chicago teachers pension fund,” Nekritz said.

At the same time, Nekritz offered no indication the 10-member conference committee upon which she sits intends to include a city pension fix in the pension-reform plan it is putting together. It’s too early, she said, to measure what impact, if any, the city teacher layoffs have on discussions.

“I believe it complicates it, and I don’t know whether it complicates it in favor of getting something done or it makes it more challenging to get something done,” she said.

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