By Jamey Dunn
Gov. Pat Quinn has called the General Assembly back into session to address pension reform, but it seems that legislative leaders are no closer to reaching an agreement.
Quinn announced today that lawmakers would be required to return to Springfield on Aug. 17.
The Illinois House is already scheduled to be in session that day to vote on a recommendation from a disciplinary committee to eject Rep. Derrick Smith from its ranks. Smith is accused of taking a $7,000 bribe in exchange for helping a business seeking a state grant.
Quinn called on lawmakers to pass pension reform legislation this year, but negotiations fell apart in the final days of the regular spring session.
Democrats argued that downstate and suburban schools, state universities and community colleges should pick up more of the cost of their employees’ retirement benefits. Chicago schools already pay most of their employee retirement benefits. Democrats argue that because districts are setting the pay upon which benefits are based, they should not be able to pass the pension bill off to the state.
But Republicans said that shifting the costs to local districts when state funding to schools is also being cut would lead to layoffs and local property tax increases.
The governor made the special session announcement today when he addressed the City Club of Chicago. “We’ve accommodated repeated requests for study and analysis, and it’s pretty clear that the school districts of Illinois can have a stake in their own pensions. This is not a good situation, where a school district can negotiate a contract with its employees, then shift the retirement costs over to taxpayers who did not have a seat at the table. It’s about accountability,” Quinn told the Chicago-Sun Times. “We must have a system that’s accountable, and that’s what we’re going to have, and we’re going to get it done on Aug. 17.”
Talks among the four legislative leaders reached a standstill earlier this summer when no agreement on the issue was found, and it would appear that nothing has changed since those negotiations stalled out. “I’m not aware that there’s been any more progress in terms of conversation between leaders,” said Northbrook Democratic Rep. Elaine Nekritz, who was the representative for the House Democrats on a pension reform working group. She said that at this point, trying to predict what, if anything, the special session might produce would be pure “speculation.”
Nekritz told the Daily Herald earlier this summer that she thought it was likely that pension reform would not pass until after the general election in November.
When asked whether leaders were any closer to reaching an agreement, Steve Brown, spokesperson for House Speaker Michael Madigan said, “I’m not aware of anything.”
Republican leaders took a positive tone when reacting to Quinn’s announcement. “We are encouraged by the governor’s call for a special session on pension reform on Aug. 17. As many people know, we have been and continue to be supportive of comprehensive pension reform that solves the major crisis facing us today. The time to act has been upon us,” said a prepared statement from House Minority Leader Tom Cross and Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno. “We are continuing to encourage Gov. Quinn to take a leadership role to get a comprehensive pension bill passed in the General Assembly. We will continue to be available to discuss this very important matter in the coming weeks.”
There are a few pension proposals out there that lawmakers could take up. Senate Bill 1673 would have shifted costs to schools, universities and community colleges. After it became clear that Republicans would not support that plan, Madigan turned control of the bill over to Cross, who added amendments to remove the cost shift. Also, the Senate passed House Bill 1447, which would reduce benefits for state employees and legislators only. The measure avoids the controversial topic of who would pay for school benefits. However, both bills have immediate effective dates so, they would require the approval of a three-fifths majority or amendments to change the effective dates. If the effective dates are changed, the earliest the legislation could become law is next June 1.
It is unclear whether House Republicans could get behind a plan -- or whether Quinn would sign it -- that only covers state workers and legislators and does not address the pension systems for teachers and university employees. According to Quinn’s budget office, those systems would account for the bulk of pension costs for 2013. Multiple attempts to contact Quinn's office for comment were not returned. The announcement for the special session also mentions Quinn’s plan, which was never drafted into bill form.
Meanwhile, Senate President John Cullerton is urging Quinn to call off the special session. He has volunteered to call back his members on August 17th in order to cut costs associated with a special session. “I share the governor's interest in resolving the lingering pension issues, but it makes no sense to spend thousands of taxpayer dollars when there is an easy, no-cost alternative,” Cullerton said in a prepared statement. He estimates that the cost of one day of special session would be about $40,000. If the Senate returns voluntarily, some travel costs would not be covered by taxpayers.