SPRINGFIELD -- In a sharp response to claims that public employees' pension reform concerns have been overlooked, Illinois House Speaker Michael declined an invitation Wednesday to a labor unions summit aimed at discussing the crisis.
The Chicago Democrat released a letter to labor leader Michael Carrigan of the "We are One Illinois" coalition that urged an "honest proposal" to fix the $96 billion problem.
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"To date, we have received no cooperation from the labor unions representing state employees on addressing these challenges," Madigan wrote in an RSVP to the Feb. 11 conference. "In fact, these unions often have been strongly opposed to any attempt to solve the problem."
The letter's acidic tone was a deviation from the powerful but legendarily reserved Madigan. His Democratic roots run deep with support for labor but he has clashed with workers over the years on such issues as teacher tenure, restrictions on the ability to unionize and pension benefits for future state employees.
Negotiations over how to solve the an increasing pension liabilities problem -- a taxpayer burden that'll be up to nearly $7 billion next year -- continues in earnest next week, when Gov. Pat Quinn will likely make the issue central to his State of the State address.
Decades of underfunding have caused the $96 billion liability in five state retirement systems, and proposed legislative solutions have included increased employee contributions and less-generous post-career benefits.
"We are One Illinois" has put out its own plan that would increase workers' contributions and reduce "wasteful tax loopholes, especially for big corporations." The group says it would provide at least $2.4 billion a year to stabilize the funds while preventing cuts to retirees.
The plan is a "starting point," Carrigan, president of the Illinois AFL-CIO, said in a statement Wednesday evening. "Our summit is a demonstration of good faith and commitment to seeking to solve the state's pension funding problem in a way that is fair and constitutional."
Madigan, while welcoming their "more active role," scolded the unions, saying, "It is time for labor to come to the table with an honest proposal that recognizes the state's serious fiscal condition" and reshapes promised benefits to more closely resemble non-government jobs. He cited statistics showing Illinois is fourth among the dozen most-populous states in terms of state worker pay and that state employees here pay much less for insurance premiums than private-sector counterparts, numbers with which Carrigan quibbled.
Carrigan began this exchange last week when he invited Democrat Quinn, Madigan and other legislative leaders to the mid-February meeting at AFL-CIO offices in the Chicago suburb of Burr Ridge. His invitation said a solution has eluded lawmakers thus far largely because union concerns were not addressed.
Madigan -- pointing to "no fewer than eight high-level meetings" in the past year involving Quinn, lawmakers and labor -- said labor was unwilling to help draft a plan. Carrigan acknowledged a series of discussions but said elected officials abruptly ended them.