Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Quinn tells committee he wants pension reform in three weeks

By Jamey Dunn with Meredith Colias contributing 

Gov. Pat Quinn set a July 9 deadline for a newly formed legislative conference committee on pension reform to produce a compromise.

 “We have to have a reasonable deadline,” Quinn said. “They don’t have an eternity to do the job. ... This is urgent. This is an emergency. We’re in a crisis in Illinois.” Quinn said he made it clear to legislative leaders today that he expects the committee to present a plan for both chambers to vote on by the second Tuesday in July.

The House and Senate today set into motion the formation of the conference committee. Such committees are tasked with working out a compromise when both chambers cannot come to an agreement on legislation. The process has not been used in recent years. But as lawmakers headed into a special session called by Quinn with no agreement to vote on, the governor requested that a conference committee take up pension changes. Quinn described the committee as the “crowbar necessary to break the gridlock” over public employee pensions, but he didn’t give a direct answer on why he thinks this new conference committee would succeed where multiple working groups have failed. “The 10 members of this conference committee, good and true, have to work in good faith and bridge the differences that the House and Senate have on this particular issue,” he said. “I think it’s important now that they reconcile and bridge the differences. There are ways to do that. We began that conversation today.”

Legislative leaders named the members to the committee. For the most part, the appointees reflect the views of those who appointed them. House Speaker Michael Madigan named Chicago Rep. Arthur Turner, Riverside Rep. Michael Zalewski and Northbrook Democrat Elaine Nekritz, who has been a key player in pension talks thus far. “I think it has the potential to be different because we’re just in a different position than we’ve been in throughout this long journey, this arduous journey,” Nekritz said. “We’re a lot further down the road than we have been in the past, and I think that there is a ... desire to come together to get a compromise. I can say that from the House’s perspective, and I believe that to be true of the Senate, as well.” House Minority Leader Tom Cross tapped Naperville Rep. Darlene Senger and Quincy Rep. Jil Tracy.

Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno chose Palatine Sen. Matt Murphy and Bloomington Sen. Bill Brady. Senate President John Cullerton appointed Evanston Sen. Daniel Biss, Chicago Sen. Kwame Raoul and Aurora Sen. Linda Holmes. Biss, who sponsored Senate Bill 1, is the only choice that stands out as not sharing similar views on the issue as the leader who appointed him. However, Biss acknowledged today that compromise is needed, calling SB 1 “dead” and “gone.” “I think everything has to be on the table. I think we need to walk into this with the openness and flexibility that comes with not having bright red lines and not having nonstarters,” Biss said.

Members of the committee will be working to meet two demands. Madigan wants a bill that will save enough money to ensure that lawmakers will not have to make more pension cuts in the future. Cullerton wants some form of consideration — giving employees something in exchange for cuts to their benefits — which he says is necessary to make the legislation constitutional. Biss said he realizes that to meet both demands, the final bill would likely not save as much as SB 1. “I don’t come to this saying, 'Oh well, I was for Senate Bill 1, so the ultimate compromise has to save exactly $187 billion.' I don’t think that’s necessary, and I think it’s the wrong attitude to walk into the room with.”

Holmes, who was part of the talks that produced Cullerton’s SB 2404, said that coming to an agreement with the unions on the bill showed her that negotiations can be fruitful even if it seems like there is no grounds for compromise. “It was very difficult to think you could ever come up with anything you agreed on, and yet we all walked out of that room with something we could all live with. So I’m going to stay optimistic that this conference committee will be able to do some of that.”

The union coalition that backs SB 2404 was less than thrilled with the leaders’ choices in conference committee members. “The conference committee appointed today is heavily stacked against protecting retirement security for working families and seniors. Even so, our coalition will continue to do everything possible to advance SB 2404, which is fair, bipartisan and constitutional while producing substantial savings for the state,” said a statement from the We Are One Coalition.

Cullerton again today cast doubt on the committee meeting an early July deadline. He said the group should get actuarial analyses to understand the potential savings of any plan it is considering. “Sometimes it takes a long time. ... So that’s going to be potentially a delay. Plus the fact that we have such different theories between the two bills that have passed each chamber.”

But Quinn said that if lawmakers, working with the committee, cannot “come up with a solid package by the 9th, they’re not doing the job.”

The date of the special session may be driven by another factor. Some expect that Quinn will soon veto House Bill 183, a bill allowing concealed carry of firearms that passed on the last day of the spring legislative session. “We have to probably have to come back on July 8th to deal with the conceal and carry issue. So we’re going to be here, and if we have a pension resolution by then, of course we would take it up.” A federal court gave Illinois until July 9 to put a concealed carry law in place.

Cullerton said he expects Quinn to use his veto pen to rewrite the bill, something Quinn has done to place gun control measures in another gun-related bill. “I think he’s going to [use an amendatory] veto [on] the bill, requiring us to come back into session to act on that veto before July 9th.” Cullerton said he did not know how the governor might change the bill. Quinn did not acknowledge the connection, only saying that he is still reviewing the concealed carry legislation.

Cross said he thinks that the committee can meet Quinn’s deadline. “Sure it can be [done]. I mean, everybody knows the issues. There’s nothing new. We’ve had blue ribbon panels. We’ve had task forces. We’ve had summits. We’ve had back room meetings. We’ve had out-in-the-open meetings. We’ve had committee hearings. There’s nothing new here, so it can be done in the next couple weeks if people want it to be done.”

Ultimately all that lawmakers did in this special session was create yet another group, albeit with a new name, of most of the same players who have been working on the issue to continue to talk over pension reform. Skeptics say it was a way to leave town from the one-day special session without admitting defeat.

“The initial reaction [in the legislature] when Quinn suggested it was kind of eye-roll, ‘are-you-kidding' sort of thing,” said Kent Redfield, an emeritus political science professor at the University of Illinois Springfield.  “But then, I think the reason it got done was that people looked at it and said, 'If we do this, then it looks like we’re doing something. And we can present it as we came to town and we did something.’ It’s very symbolic. I think that it is basically a way to buy time and to play to the external audiences, which are editorial boards, average citizens and the bond [rating] houses.” Illinois’ credit rating was downgraded twice in the first week of June after lawmakers failed to pass pension changes in the regular session.

Cross said today’s creation of the committee was probably in part motivated by a desire for Democratic leaders to save face. However, he said time will tell if it will be a productive endeavor. “If in the next two weeks there’s a conference committee report and there’s a vote, then maybe we moved the ball forward, but I think there’s the potential to go nowhere,” he said.

Cullerton said he sees the committee as a breakthrough in the gridlock that has kept him and Madigan at odds for weeks. “Now we have a conference committee that the speaker has agreed to do rather than just insist that we keep on voting on his bill, and that’s a very positive step.”

 Committee members themselves described a guarded feeling of hope. “So one can ask: 'How optimistic are we? Is this going to work? Is this not going to work?’ I don’t know,” said Biss. “It’s always appropriate to have some skepticism. But the way to get there eventually will be for the people who so far haven’t been able to work something out to sit down and try. And I think it’s great that we’re going to try again.”


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