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Illinois Legislature votes for conference committee to solve pension fiasco

Updated: June 19, 2013 9:34PM

SPRINGFIELD-In a rare special session move, the Illinois Legislature voted Wednesday to form a conference committee of lawmakers to solve the state’s $97 billion pension fiasco over concerns that a July 9 deadline imposed by Gov. Pat Quinn would not be enough time.

After years of failure to act on pension reform in Springfield and amid a severe theoretical difference in opinion between the Legislature’s top two Democrats, Quinn called the committee the “crowbar necessary to break the gridlock.”

“I was encouraged by the fact that [House Speaker Michael Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton] agreed to have a conference committee,” said Quinn, who met with legislative leaders Wednesday morning.

“I don’t think there’s any doubt that the members of the Legislature understand that this is not going away. If on the 9th of July they haven’t done their job, they’re really letting the people of Illinois down.”

It’s a tall order, considering members of the 10-member, bipartisan committee will be starting fresh on a compromise never reached during the Legislature’s regular session that ended with Madigan’s savings-focused plan being trounced in the Senate and his refusal to call Cullerton’s rival, union-backed plan.

“The marching orders are the same as they’ve been for the last year and a half,” said Rep. Elaine Nekritz (D-Northbrook), who has been Madigan’s (D-Chicago) point person on pension reform this session and will be on the committee. “I think everything’s on the table.”

But Nekrtiz expressed concern that members would not be able to meet Quinn’s deadline, considering necessary analyses on a proposal’s savings that typically take several weeks.

Cullerton (D-Chicago) shared those concerns and called Quinn’s idea “just another way of getting to vote for a bill” but described it as a positive step.

“We anticipate this won’t be just a re-hash of the same thing we’ve already voted on,” he told reporters. “We hope to have a compromise.”

The practice of using conference committees was routinely used in the late 1980s as a way to hash out differences between the House and the Senate but has rarely been employed in recent history.

Patty Schuh, spokeswoman for Senate Republican leader Christine Radogno (R-Lemont), has been on the Senate communication staff for more than 20 years and said a committee’s success largely depends on the leaders around the Capitol.

“We need the support of the legislative leaders because the appointees are chosen by the legislative leaders of the four caucuses, and if the leaders do not buy into compromise and success, then we will never achieve that,” she said.

The committee is expected to convene over the next few weeks in Chicago and Springfield, and at least some of the meetings will be open to the public. Cullerton said he hopes to have the first meeting sometime next week.

The cost of not finding a compromise runs at a tune of $17 million a day. And to at least one legislative leader in Springfield, political maneuverings will stand in the way of erasing it.

“I think today was more of a face-saving move for folks,” House Republican leader Tom Cross (R-Oswego) told reporters. “The next couple of weeks would be critical. Are we going to see a conference committee that’s a group meeting every day or is it kind of just going through the motions and going nowhere? Time will tell on that.”

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