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10 legislators working to make pension reform happen, but they need Madigan and Cullerton

Updated: September 15, 2013 6:24AM

Dare we say it?

State public employee pension reform may, one day soon, become a reality in Illinois.

This summer, while most of the news coverage has focused on the fight between Gov. Pat Quinn and the Democratic leaders in the Legislature over Quinn’s decision to suspend legislative pay until they cut pension costs, a bipartisan group of 10 legislators has quietly been working hard to make it happen.

We hear the pension conference committee is close to a deal to cut the costs of the state’s four pension systems, covering teachers outside Chicago, state employees, legislators and university workers. In case you’ve missed it, the state’s unfunded pension liability is roughly $100 billion and strangling state spending on education, health care and more.

The committee, which meets next on Wednesday, has broken free of two approaches that failed to get through the Legislature and have basically nailed a method for cutting benefits, mirroring key elements of a plan advanced by the presidents of the 14 public universities in Illinois. Number crunchers analyzed the deal and reported substantial savings, though not as substantial as in the bill we supported last spring. We’ll withhold final judgment until we see the numbers, but it goes without saying that no bill will get past the goal line without a heavy dose of compromise by all.

The next step is the real test — getting it through the Legislature. Rich Miller of Capitol Fax, who watches this stuff like a hawk and first reported that a deal is imminent, has his doubts. And given the failed attempts of the last few years, skepticism is more than justified.

The difference this time will come down to House Speaker Mike Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton. Illinois lawmakers, smarting from Quinn’s withholding of their pay and the public perception that they’re motivated only by their next paycheck, aren’t going to follow the governor’s lead.

It’s up to Madigan and Cullerton to put aside differing approaches for cutting pension costs and embrace the committee’s recommendation, which we hope will be announced in the next few weeks. Cullerton has signaled a willingness to support the university approach, which is a significant breakthrough. It’s now Madigan’s turn to show us just how reasonable a guy he is.

What’s missing is any mention of cutting costs for the pension systems for the Chicago Public Schools and the City of Chicago, which are controlled by the state. CPS’ current budget crisis is fueled in large part by a $400 million jump in its pension costs this year. Chicago will face a similar cliff in 2015.

Despite a heavy dose of wishful thinking by CPS leaders, neither the school system’s nor the city’s pension systems are under discussion in Springfield. We wish they were, but no use pretending. The best-case scenario is passage of a bill to reform the state’s system, followed quickly by bills that apply a similar template to the Chicago schools and city employees.

That’s reasonable, and doable, within the next month.

We can continue focusing on when and if legislators will get paid. That’s good theater, to be sure.

But the drama playing out behind the scenes — the emergence of a bill that may reform pensions once and for all — is what will truly wow the crowds.

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