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Editorial: Compromise must happen to solve state’s pension mess

Illinois Sen. Gary Forby D-Bentbottom listens Illinois Senate President John CullertD-Chicago top while Senate floor during special legislative sessideal with

Illinois Sen. Gary Forby, D-Benton, bottom, listens to Illinois Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago, top, while on the Senate floor during a special legislative session to deal with state pension reform at the Illinois State Capitol Wednesday, June 19, 2013, in Springfield, Ill. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman)

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Updated: July 22, 2013 6:09PM

The lineup for this game doesn’t look bad.

Maybe, in a genuine spirit of compromise, the 10 of them can finally cook up a pension reform plan that both the state House and Senate can stomach and will save the State of Illinois from financial ruin.

Yes, yes, we know: Maybe not.

But listen, people, we’re trying to be positive here.

The Illinois General Assembly formed a 10-person committee Wednesday to create a comprehensive package of pension reforms, with the aim of producing enough true savings to beat down a pension debt now approaching $100 billion and stabilize the system for decades to come.

That could be easy. The committee is stacked 8 to 2 with legislators who in the legislative session that just ended favored a pension reform plan — Senate Bill 1 — that would have saved the state $187 billion over 30 years. Those eight committee members could easily come together behind a similar plan now and roll right over the two members who previously favored a union-backed bill that would have saved much less money.

But the committee’s plan then has to be approved by the Legislature — and that would be hard. The same Legislature has been unable to agree on pension reform for years, divided by both self-serving politics and high principle. There is little reason to believe anybody would budge now.

On the contrary, as campaigning for the next elections picks up, Senate Democrats beholden to the unions would be even more reluctant to back a pension bill that achieves big financial savings by reducing benefits or making employees pay more.

And some Republicans, happy to have the campaign issue, could be even more reluctant to vote for a bill that doesn’t save at least close to $187 billion.

Consider, for example, Sen. Bill Brady, who was appointed to the committee Wednesday by Senate Republican Leader Christine Radogno. If Brady is running for governor again, as everybody assumes, he has little political incentive to agree to a pension reform compromise that achieves significantly lower — if still sizable — savings, such as, say, $140 billion.

Then again, why pick on Brady? Just about every legislator has some kind of reason to wimp out.

One sign of hope is Senate President John Cullerton’s decision to appoint Sen. Daniel Biss to the committee. Biss was a chief architect of Senate Bill 1, which Cullerton strongly opposed as unconstitutional. By appointing Biss, we believe Cullerton is sending a message that he is sincerely committed to constructive compromise.

Until recently, Cullerton insisted that any pension bill, to pass constitutional muster, had to offer employees a clear choice in the matter, known in legalese as “consideration.” His preferred pension bill, for example, offered employees continued health insurance in return for accepting a hit to their pension benefits. But Cullerton now has signaled that he could support a bill that called for a whole lot of “taking” and only some “consideration.”

A second sign of hope, or at least of progress, is the talk around Springfield that the committee will begin its negotiations with a fresh approach, looking at new ideas included in a pension plan put forward by the state universities and community colleges. That plan, backed by the presidents of all 14 public universities, covers only the university retirement system, but elements of it could be applicable to the state’s three other main retirement systems.

Gov. Pat Quinn would like to see the committee complete its work by early July.

Is that too soon?

Our worry is that we’re already too late.

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