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June 19, 2013
By: Ray Long and Monique Garcia

SPRINGFIELD, IL – The General Assembly is in special session today to form a conference committee of lawmakers who will try to come up with a way to break a stalemate on government worker pension reform.

The Senate got the ball rolling by voting 45-11 not to agree with a House amendment on a pension bill, sending it back to the House and paving the way for the special panel of lawmakers to be formed.

The conference committee, an approach is more used in Washington than Springfield, will feature 10 lawmakers — five each from the House and Senate, with six Democrats and four Republicans. The panel is expected to hold public hearings in the coming weeks before returning to the Capitol for what House Speaker Michael Madigan indicated could be another July 8 special session.

Some lawmakers doubted the conference committee will be able to resolve the stalemate between Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton, who have differing views on pension reform.

“We talked about the special session, we talked in terms of creating a conference committee which will meet over one or two weeks or three weeks,” Madigan said after a morning meeting at the governor’s mansion. “And we’re contemplating returning to Springfield some time after the 4th of July holiday.”

“I think if the 10 appointees of the conference committee, working with all interested parties, act in good faith we can have a bill ready on July the 8th.”

Asked if his version of pension reform will be the framework, Madigan said, “I don’t think we ought to just focus on one bill or another bill. I think we ought to work on the concepts. Everybody’s pretty familiar with the concepts on pension law changes today and just work through all those ideas, you have a good faith intent to draft a bill.”

The conference committee approach allows a frustrated Gov. Pat Quinn to avoid coming away with nothing from the special session he called, even if he’s settling for far less than the sweeping reforms he wants. It also buys legislators more time as the lack of pension reform hurts the state’s credit rating and retirement costs consume money that could otherwise go to education, health care or paying down a pile of bills.

Before session got underway, a fire alarm went off and the Capitol was evacuated. There was no fire, leading Democratic Sen. Mike Jacobs of East Moline to joke about who might have pulled the alarm.

“I’m not sure. I assume it was the governor, though,” Jacobs said. “He has the most to lose from a bad-press day.

“And maybe that fire alarm’s a message from taxpayers that it’s time for Illinois to get it together and move forward,” he added.

At the philosophical heart — if perhaps not the political core — of the Madigan-Cullerton disagreement is a clause in the Illinois Constitution that says membership in any government worker pension or retirement system “shall be an enforceable contractual relationship, the benefits of which shall not be diminished or impaired.” The phrase has stood as a bulwark for more than four decades against any reductions in government worker pensions.

Madigan’s plan would require workers to kick in more from their paychecks, wait longer to retire and get smaller cost-of-living increases. Cullerton’s version would offer government workers choices centering on reduced benefits in return for keeping health care, and vice versa. As such, Cullerton says his pension bill is legal and Madigan’s bill will be found unconstitutional.

Madigan announced his three House Democrats for the conference committee: Reps. Elaine Nekritz of Northbrook, Mike Zalewski of Riverside and Art Turner of Chicago.

Copyright © 2013 Chicago Tribune Company, LLC

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