A solution to Illinois' worst-in-the-nation state pension crisis remained far from reach Friday, as legislative leaders and Gov. Pat Quinn said they would try again to pass a plan backed by House Speaker Michael Madigan -- one that failed in the Senate last month and is unlikely to pass next week.
Quinn met with Madigan, Senate President John Cullerton and Republican leaders Sen. Christine Radogno and Rep. Tom Cross in Chicago to try to forge an agreement before a special legislative session scheduled for Wednesday.
But Madigan and Cullerton -- both Democrats who lead veto-proof majorities -- hadn't broke their stalemate over how to address the $97 billion shortfall, and Radogno said the meeting was like watching "an awkward family fight."
"It was uncomfortable," Radogno said. "It was clear that there is not even close to agreement between the Democrats."
Quinn suggested Friday lawmakers form a bipartisan conference committee to come up with an agreement, a tactic that hasn't been tried in Illinois in years. His spokeswoman, Brooke Anderson, said "on a really tricky issue, this is a way for an agreement to be forged."
But Madigan objected, saying he's "concerned that it's an effort by the governor to distance himself from the process" -- a claim Quinn flatly denied.
Quinn and legislative leaders said they would first try to give Madigan's bill another run in the Senate. The measure already has passed the House, but received only 16 "yes" votes in the Senate; it would need 36 such votes to pass next week.
Quinn and Madigan said they will speak with senators over the next few days to try pick up support for the measure, which cuts pension benefits across the board, raises the retirement age and requires workers and retirees to pay more toward their retirement benefits.
Cullerton was not optimistic.
"It will be very difficult to get 20 of them to change their minds, but we'll try," he said.
The Senate approved legislation sponsored by Cullerton that gives workers and retirees a choice in benefits. He said his members want Madigan to call that bill for a vote and predicted it has enough votes to "fly out of the House." Cullerton believes it's the only approach that will survive an inevitable court challenge.
Madigan has not been willing to call Cullerton's bill, however, saying it doesn't save the state enough money.
Quinn said he will "make a herculean effort" to get senators to vote for Madigan's bill, but that the four legislative leaders also need to do their part and build support among legislators.
He said if the stalemate isn't broken by Wednesday, he will again ask for the formation of a conference committee. Madigan and Cullerton each would appoint three legislators and Radogno and Cross each would appoint two, and the group then would negotiate an agreement.
There's no guarantee what such a committee drafts would become law, because it would have to be approved by both chambers -- where it could run into the same problems as the existing legislative proposals.
Illinois' five public employee retirement systems are largely unfunded due to years of the legislature voting to skip or short the state's payments.
Lawmakers adjourned last month without a deal. Within days, two major credit rating agencies downgraded the state, leaving Illinois with the worst credit rating of any state in the nation. That means Illinois pays millions more to borrow money than it would otherwise.
Earlier this week, Quinn proposed a compromise that would combine Madigan and Cullerton's plans: Madigan's legislation would be "Plan A" and Cullerton's plan -- with more cost savings worked in -- would be the backup if the courts threw out the other.
Madigan quickly showed his disapproval, filing an amendment on Cullerton's bill that would essentially gut it and replace it with his own measure. Asked Friday whether his digging in could be perceived standing in the way of compromise, Madigan said he believes he's doing what voters want him to do.
"I don't think you send people to the legislature to be weak," he said. "I think you send them down there to be strong, to understand the issues, work on bills, advocate for positions and advance those positions through the legislature. That's what you want."