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updated: 6/16/2013 6:41 AM

Expectations low for new round of pension talks

Talks to resume this week, but expectations are low

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  • Lawmakers will return to Springfield Wednesday, but the path to accomplishing anything is difficult.

    Lawmakers will return to Springfield Wednesday, but the path to accomplishing anything is difficult.
    Associated Press File Photo


SPRINGFIELD -- When lawmakers return to the Illinois Capitol this week to take another crack at the controversial task of curbing the state's escalating pension costs, things will be in place as if they'd never left.

The state's pension costs continue to rise, and compromise is blocked by deep ideological divides or political motives, depending on who you ask.

That gridlock has people miffed, no matter what side of the issue they're on.

"There was a lot of very real anger and frustration," said state Rep. Elaine Nekritz, a Northbrook Democrat. "We need to take some time and cool down."

At the request of Gov. Pat Quinn, lawmakers are set to meet Wednesday. Their daily stipends for meetings run $111 each, or $19,647 if all 177 members show up, plus mileage reimbursements at 39 cents per mile.

Senate President John Cullerton says he'll call for a vote Wednesday on a sweeping package of pension benefit cuts backed by House Speaker Michael Madigan.

But that barely got half the votes it needed for approval about 20 days before.

Madigan won't even call Cullerton's union-backed proposal for a vote.

Last year, the same issue sparked Quinn to call a similar special meeting in August.

Nothing got done then. The resulting frustration led two suburban Democrats to draft legislation during the fall that would eventually evolve into the package of pension benefit cuts backed by Madigan.

And it resulted in Quinn promising a grass-roots campaign to encourage reform that started three months later and featured an orange cartoon snake named Squeezy the Pension Python.

This year, the complicated arguments that divide lawmakers on the issue are different. But both sides -- each led by powerful Chicago Democrats -- have dug in deeply to support their positions.

It's clear, though, that Quinn's opponents in next year's election will try to use that divide to portray him as weak. When Democrat Bill Daley announced a possible primary run against Quinn, lawmakers' inaction on the pension question topped his list of beefs.

Quinn can't enact new pension laws on his own, so calling lawmakers back to Springfield is one of his only tools to try to break the gridlock.

"Pension reform will not be law in Illinois until the Senate president and speaker of the House agree to work together in good faith," said Quinn spokeswoman Brooke Anderson.

Madigan has staunchly defended his benefit cuts as the only way to truly relieve the state's $100 billion in pension debt. The plan would raise the retirement age for public workers age 45 and younger and cut retirees' annual benefit raises, among other things.

Cullerton says that plan is unconstitutional, and he wants to offer employees and retirees a choice between a smaller pension or less help with their health care. His plan is backed by union leaders.

That disagreement could go unresolved Wednesday. Most Democrats in the Senate dislike Madigan's plan.

State Sen. Linda Holmes, an Aurora Democrat, thinks Madigan should just call the union-backed proposal for a vote.

"Give the House members a chance to vote it up or down," Holmes said.

A majority of Republicans support the House speaker, but they hold only 19 of 59 seats in the Senate.

State Sen. Matt Murphy, a Palatine Republican, said the pensions debate has raged too long for lawmakers to approve a fix that doesn't save as much money as possible.

"To water that down right now, I think, is a mistake," Murphy said.

So while the stage is set for a debate Wednesday and deals in Springfield can be cut quickly, history and the existing hurdles suggest there might not be much of a show.

"My expectations are sadly pretty low," Murphy said.

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