Nothing short of a "catastrophic event" is likely to convince state leaders to come together and solve the state's pension problems, House Republican Leader Tom Cross said.
Cross, of Oswego, said people in Illinois aren't convinced of the severity of the pension problem, and might not be until the funds collapse.
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"Unless that happens, we may not deal with it in a real, substantive way," he said.
Cross made the comments Tuesday in Chicago at a legislative committee meeting with financial analysts over pensions, just days before lawmakers head into a special session called by Gov. Pat Quinn to deal with pension reform.
Quinn responded to Cross later in the day, telling reporters in Springfield that the state's finances already have catastrophic problems. Quinn continues to try to broker a pension deal between Republicans and Democrats.
"I think it's a catastrophe right now after 30 years of inaction," Quinn said.
Lawmakers are set to return to Springfield Friday for another shot at hashing out a deal on how to handle the state's $83 billion in pension debt and pay for pensions going forward. The special session comes just as many lawmakers are blanketing their districts, knocking on doors and talking to voters in advance of the Nov. 6 election, leading many to believe agreement on something as controversial as pensions will have to wait until after the election.
Josh McGee of the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, which advocates public pension reform, told the panel Tuesday that solving Illinois' pension woes is going to take more than just cuts. Committee members included Republican state reps. Mike Tryon of Crystal Lake and Darlene Senger of Naperville, and Democratic state Rep. Elaine Nekritz of Northbrook,
"It's going to take more money in the system. You cannot reduce the unfunded liability enough to make it go away," Arnold said.
As part of their push to cut pension benefits for state workers and lawmakers, but not yet teachers, Democrats prepared new legislation that would delay the cuts until summer 2013 -- a maneuver that would require fewer votes for the bill to pass.
Making pension cuts effective immediately would require 71 votes for approval in the House, but with the delayed action the bill would only need 60 votes to pass. But Cross has said the proposal wouldn't save enough money, and Democrats aren't sure there's enough support for it, either.
"I don't know that there's 60 votes," said Steve Brown, spokesman for House Speaker Michael Madigan.
Lawmakers could consider other proposals, too. Nekritz has introduced legislation that shifts pension costs to local school districts. Though the shift is more gradual than in previous plans, Republicans oppose the move and have shown no willingness to compromise.
Cross expressed fears of a bond ratings downgrade for the state, but reiterated his stance that shifting pension costs to local school districts is not the way to go.
He called the cost shift a "major problem in principle" noting "the (Democratic) folks running things want more money to spend."
Still, he said, suburban school districts must stop some current practices that are costing the state extra money -- including giving teachers consecutive high raises in the last years of their careers to purposely bump up pensions.
While Cross speculated that a solution might not be in the cards on Friday, he also noted "there's never going to be a good time to do pension reform." He encouraged Quinn to "call us back Saturday, Sunday, Monday. ... It'll be chaotic down there, (but) put us in a room, lock it with a key, and when we're done let us out."
•State government writer Mike Riopell contributed to this story.