SPRINGFIELD -- Gov. Pat Quinn Wednesday threw his influence squarely behind Senate President John Cullerton's plan to cut the state's pension costs, endorsing it over a competing proposal pushed by a suburban Democrat.
Quinn praised state Rep. Elaine Nekritz, a Northbrook Democrat, by name in his State of the State address. But in the end, Quinn made clear he was backing Cullerton, a Chicago Democrat.
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"I urge all of you to be part of the solution," Quinn said. "And while refinements may come, Senate Bill 1 is the best vehicle to get the job done.
Cullerton's plan includes a provision to make teachers and state workers choose between either losing their current pension benefits or losing state subsidized health care.
Nekritz and her supporters back cuts that wouldn't give teachers an option. They say Cullerton's plan won't save enough money because not enough people will choose less generous pensions.
"I think it's important that we get some comprehensive numbers," she said after the speech.
Nekritz's plan also includes having suburban schools pay millions of dollars more every year toward teachers' pensions, a cost the state picks up now. For now, Cullerton's doesn't include that, but other top Democrats have made clear they want it.
Questions about whether either -- or neither -- plan would be allowed after a vigorous legal challenge shrouds both proposals.
The two competing plans are at the core of lawmakers' gridlock over one of the state's most pressing financial problems, nearly $100 billion in pension debt that eats into what lawmakers can spend for schools, prisons, health care and other programs.
Quinn's backing of Cullerton was his most clear message yet of which side he's on.
Despite Quinn's remarks, Nekritz said the case isn't closed on which proposal will eventually be pushed forward onto Quinn's desk.
"I don't think that's true at all," she said.
Union leaders were quick to criticize Quinn Wednesday.
"Gov. Pat Quinn presented a false choice today between funding pensions or funding vital services, like education and public safety," a statement from the We Are One Illinois coalition of unions said.
But Cullerton immediately released a statement thanking Quinn for the support.
"The governor and I have a shared priority for the state -- improving our financial outlook by reforming and stabilizing the pension systems," he said.
Still, that remaining gridlock makes it unclear how much lawmakers will accomplish on the issue this year.
Republicans blasted the governor for not talking about the issue enough. His remarks on pension reform were brief and mostly saved for the closing of the speech.
And the GOP tried to ridicule Quinn's address as a campaign speech.
For example, state Sen. Kirk Dillard, a Hinsdale Republican and likely candidate for governor in 2014, blamed Quinn for not convincing his own party to approve pension reforms yet.
"He has just failed to lead effectively on the state's most pressing problem," he said.
Last year, Quinn told reporters he was "put on God's Earth" to solve the problem.
And just less than one year ago, Quinn approached the topic head-on in his budget address, telling lawmakers that: "Our rendezvous with reality has arrived."
That rendezvous will now be one of the biggest debates of 2013, and Quinn's speech made clear he wants to keep it that way.
"Hard is not impossible," Quinn said.