By Jamey Dunn
As lawmakers prepare to return to Springfield for a special session on pensions next week, Gov. Pat Quinn and Democratic legislative leaders are no closer to presenting a united front on the best way to get a bill passed.
For now, Quinn and Senate President John Cullerton are on the same page. Cullerton said today, after a meeting with Quinn and House Speaker Michael Madigan that he and the governor plan to resurrect his old proposal to approve two versions of changes to the pension system. The Senate would pass the House bill, but it would also tack on the measure the Senate passed as a plan B in case the Illinois Supreme Court agrees with Cullerton’s opinion that Madigan’s plan is unconstitutional. If the court tosses the plan A, Cullerton’s plan B, Senate Bill 2404, would become the law.
Madigan’s proposal, Senate Bill 1, would unilaterally reduce public employee retirement benefits, while Cullerton’s bill offers employees several options that essentially ask them to choose between their compounded interest rate cost-of-living adjustment or access to state subsidized health care. Madigan’s proposal would save more money, but Cullerton and others say they have serious doubts about its constitutionality. “I told the two leaders, who have known each other for 34 years— they are very close friends; they’re family friends — when they want to put something on my desk that’s their priority, they know how to do it,” Quinn told reporters after the meeting in Chicago today. “I appealed to them on behalf of the people of Illinois and the common good to work together, as they have on many occasions in the past, to put this priority on my desk.” Republican legislative leaders were not at the meeting.
Cullerton said he plans to run a bill that has both proposals in it during the special session, which is scheduled to begin on June 19. “The governor’s made it real clear what he wants us to do,” he said. The House plan failed to get the support needed to pass when it was called for a vote in the Senate on the last day of spring session. “I sponsored the bill. I voted for the bill. We didn’t have enough votes,” Cullerton said. He said he does not know if this combination plan would pass, but he said he thinks it has a better chance than the House bill standing alone. “With the backup, it makes it easier to get people to vote for it.” Cullerton’s bill had union support, which he said made it easier to get approved.
“The Madigan plan is unfair and unconstitutional, period, and tying it to other legislation is just lipstick on a pig,” Anders Lindall, spokesman for Council 31 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union, said in an email: “The Senate’s work is done – a bipartisan supermajority passed [SB] 2404, the plan developed by the union coalition with President Cullerton, and twice rejected the Madigan bill. SB 2404 saves more than the Madigan plan and it’s designed to withstand a legal challenge. With a fair hearing for 2404 and a vote on the floor of the House, the pension issue could be put to rest in an afternoon.”
But Madigan does not seem interested in the idea of a combined bill or taking a vote on the Senate plan alone. “My preference is to keep it simple.” He said that the House bill would save the most money of any plan being considered, and Quinn and Cullerton should be lobbying senators to get it passed. “The best pension bill passed so far and the one that does the most cost savings is the House bill. That’s in the Senate. The governor ought to work to get that passed.” Madigan has refused to call the bill the Senate approved for a vote in his chamber.
But Madigan made it clear that he believes he has already done the heavy lifting in his chamber. “We didn’t have 60 votes to pass the bill until I had personal conversations with about 20 House members and persuaded them to vote for the bill.” He said that Cullerton and Quinn should take the time leading up to the session to meet individually with senators and make the case for the bill approved by the House. “We’ve been at this issue now for about three years. And what I know about this issue is, it’s very difficult and it requires good, hard work in order to pass the bill. That’s what I know, and that’s what I did.” Madigan would not say if he would take up any new plan approved in the Senate, simply repeating that he preferred to keep things “simple.”
Cullerton said, “He’s saying there’s no commitment to call the bill, but we’re going to go ahead and try to pass it.”