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Quinn says ‘breakthrough’ reached with Madigan on pension reform

A 'PensiPromise' sign is seen as Illinois state unimembers supporters rally support fair pensireform rotundrIllinois State Capitol Jan. 3 2013

A "Pension Promise" sign is seen as Illinois state union members and supporters rally in support of fair pension reform in the rotundra at the Illinois State Capitol on Jan. 3, 2013, in Springfield Ill. | Seth Perlman/AP

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Updated: February 6, 2013 6:09AM

House Speaker Michael Madigan has agreed to “defer” his demand that suburban and Downstate school districts pay more toward teacher pension costs in a move Gov. Pat Quinn described Friday as a breakthrough.

Disagreement between the two parties over whether the state should hand suburban and downstate school systems a $20 billion tab for funding educators’ pensions has stood as a major impediment toward solving Illinois’ $95 billion pension crisis.

Madigan’s willingness to drop his demand that that cost shift be part of a pension package came as the governor and four legislative leaders plan to meet Saturday in Chicago to see if a bipartisan pension deal can be struck before the lame-duck legislative session’s scheduled Tuesday conclusion.

The speaker “indicated he was willing to defer any discussion on the cost shift regarding pension reform until a later date, that we’d still keep working on that issue, pay attention to that issue, but it was of such a paramount importance we act now to begin the process of pension reform that he was willing to take that particular issue off the table,” Quinn told reporters in Wheaton.

“That’s a major, I think, step forward for all of us to put together a plan, a bipartisan plan, that really begins to do what the people of Illinois want,” the governor said.

Madigan (D-Chicago) also is “committed” to help round up Democratic votes on a pension bill still being negotiated, Quinn said.

The Democratic governor provided few details on the pension legislation that he said is taking shape, but said it would include higher employee contributions and a reduction in retirees’ cost-of-living increases.

Strangely, he made the announcement not with Madigan at his side but at a meeting with DuPage County legislators in Wheaton that had been organized by County Board Chairman Dan Cronin.

Cronin pledged that DuPage Republicans would work as a “team” to try to enact a pension bill by Tuesday.

Rep. Darlene Senger (R-Naperville), who served as a spokesperson for about a dozen lawmakers, said they had been informed of the details of Quinn’s proposal just prior to the press conference and therefore couldn’t commit to it.

But she did express optimism that a deal could finally be in the works. “My gut is telling me this is moving in a real significant direction,” Senger said.

Last May, Madigan also had dropped his insistence on the cost-shifting proposal when it emerged as a roadblock to Republican support, then stood back and allowed the measure to fail as GOP leaders couldn’t find enough votes on their own.

Asked if there have been any fundamental changes in the House since then on the cost shift, Madigan spokesman Steve Brown pointed to the 20-plus House Democrats and Republicans who signed on to legislation pushed by Rep. Elaine Nekritz (D-Northbrook) and Rep. Daniel Biss (D-Evanston) that contained cost-shift language.

“I’d say, if anything, there’s been more growth since last spring in support for that than anything,” Brown said.

For Chicago lawmakers, making suburban and downstate school systems pay for their employees’ pensions, rather than the state, is a matter of fairness since city taxpayers foot the bill for pensions for Chicago Public Schools retirees – and, through state income taxes, pension costs for educators outside Chicago.

That means for every Republican vote Madigan might lure with his promise not to pursue a suburban and downstate cost shift, he could lose votes from Chicago Democrats.

“I guess as a rep from the city of Chicago, I worry about making deals that do not involve the cost shift. That’s just basically unfair and a burden on folks in my area to pay twice,” said Rep. Greg Harris (D-Chicago). “There are so many moving parts, and it’s so complicated that we’ll just have to wait and see what it looks like.”

A spokesman for AFSCME Council 31, which represents the largest bloc of unionized state workers, said it’s hard to judge whether Madigan’s pronouncement truly amounts to a pivotal development in the long-running pension saga.

“I don’t know that anyone can tell. I think it’s a fluid situation and has been for two years. The fundamental things in the legislation that’s been out there would grossly diminish the earned pension benefit of workers and retirees in a way that’s not fair and not in accordance with the Constitution,” AFSCME spokesman Anders Lindall said.

Late Thursday, Senate President John Cullerton (D-Chicago) appeared to hold firm to his belief that pension reform should revolve around a pair of bills the Senate has passed that applied to only two of the state’s five retirement systems.

Asked if a pension deal could be reached, Cullerton told reporters in Springfield, “Well, we certainly could if the House was to vote on the two bills we’ve sent over there dealing with the state employees and the General Assembly.”

Brown said Madigan’s statement doesn’t necessarily mean that legislation championed by Cullerton would become the focal point of pension discussions in the House.

“I don’t know it means that,” Brown said. “It just means we’ll defer the cost shift now and look at all the other elements of bills that have been talked about, voted on, introduced to deal with pension costs, and we’ll come to some decision tomorrow what elements can be in the bill.”

A spokeswoman for Cullerton’s GOP counterpart, Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno (R-Lemont), said she is not “wedded” to any particular pension proposal but believe’s it’s progress to remove the education pension cost shift from consideration.

“I think it’s significant. That’s been a roadblock because, as currently proposed, the cost shift could result in a massive property increase for downstate and suburban homeowners,” Radogno spokeswoman Patty Schuh said.

“It’s a package deal. You have to see what else goes into a package, what can pass,” she continued. “But we’re glad it appears one roadblock has been removed.”

Contributing: Zach Buchheit

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