SPRINGFIELD -- Gov. Pat Quinn's decision to call lawmakers to Springfield next month to debate teacher and state worker pension cuts was praised by suburban lawmakers of both parties Monday, even as various factions battling over retirement changes might be far from a deal.
Lawmakers are now set to return to Springfield on Aug. 17, a day the Illinois House had already planned to meet for other reasons. Quinn's announcement Monday means senators also have to go.
"I have continued work with the leaders of all four legislative caucuses to introduce legislation that would eliminate the State's unfunded pension liability; stabilize and strengthen the pension systems and ensure that the public employees who have faithfully contributed to the system receive benefits," Quinn said in a proclamation Monday.
Despite that, agreement has been elusive. Some Democrats and Republicans both have endorsed a plan that would force teachers and state workers to take less generous yearly increases in their pension benefits in exchange for guaranteed state health care.
But there remains a rift between lawmakers who say it's only fair to shift the state's share of teacher pension costs onto local schools and those who argue the state's financial problems shouldn't be foisted onto property taxpayers.
Quinn has proposed phasing in that shift slowly over 12 years, but some opponents might not be convinced.
"I haven't seen anything change from when we left at the end of May," said state Rep. Darlene Senger, a Naperville Republican and member of Quinn's special committee on pensions.
"It's a big sticking point," Senger said. "No question at all."
Still, Republicans praised Quinn for forcing the issue by calling lawmakers into session, hoping a deal could be worked out by next month.
"We are continuing to encourage Gov. Quinn to take a leadership role to get a comprehensive pension bill passed in the General Assembly," read a joint statement from House Republican Leader Tom Cross of Oswego and Senate Republican Leader Christine Radogno of Lemont. "We will continue to be available to discuss this very important matter in the coming weeks."
Some suburban Democrats agreed, saying Quinn's move could spark a stagnant debate.
"I think it has the potential to open that up," said state Rep. Elaine Nekritz, a Northbrook Democrat and part of Quinn's pension panel.
Senate President John Cullerton, though, asked Quinn to rescind calling lawmakers into a special session, saying they'd do it voluntarily instead. The difference is, if lawmakers go to Springfield under Quinn's call, they're entitled to a per diem and some transportation reimbursements, which could add up to tens of thousands of dollars per day.
"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," the Chicago Democrat said in a statement.
It could be tricky for Quinn and top lawmakers to lure enough members to Springfield on a summer day to get the votes they might need for a pension plan. Nekritz said, for example, that one of her colleagues was planning to drive a child to college for the first time that day.
"That's also an important family function," she said.
But for now, lawmakers will have to either work on hashing out a deal over pensions or wait to see what kind of plan leadership comes up with. Quinn has portrayed the state's $83 billion in pension debt as an urgent problem that can't wait until after November's election.
"I'd like to see what form that reform would be in," said state Sen. Michael Noland, an Elgin Democrat and part of Quinn's pension committee.
"I'm hopeful we can work something out," Noland said. "But I'm not optimistic."