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updated: 6/21/2013 12:24 PM

Quinn, Ill. lawmakers plan pension talks into July

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Associated Press

SPRINGFIELD -- Unable to overcome a stalemate on the state's $97 billion pension crisis, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn and legislative leaders have agreed to form a bipartisan committee to hammer out a compromise and to reconvene the Legislature for another session in July.

Lawmakers are scheduled to convene Wednesday in Springfield for an initial special session called by Quinn to deal with the crisis. But Quinn's spokeswoman, Brooke Anderson, told The Associated Press Tuesday that the governor will call another session in early July so lawmakers can continue to work on the problem.

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The agreement was announced after it became clear that lawmakers would not overcome their impasse this week, and after Madigan warmed to the idea of a bipartisan committee to negotiate some form of middle ground between two rival pension reform plans that have split the House and Senate.

Madigan said Tuesday that he and Senate President John Cullerton will meet with Quinn Wednesday morning to discuss the committee. Both chambers would need to vote to establish the panel before day's end.

"The expectation is that the (committee) will act in good faith and strike a compromise," Madigan said after a hearing in the Capitol.

Madigan spokesman Steve Brown told the AP that the House and Senate maintain their "distinct" positions over fixing the nation's worst state pension crisis. But he said a conference committee could work by allowing lawmakers to focus on a single piece of legislation and not try to wrestle various proposals.

Cullerton said such committees have served a purpose in the past.

"It's another way - there's nothing wrong with it - it's a way in which you can have public testimony, each chamber can physically vote on the identical bill, and you don't have to wait for the other one to vote," he said.

The committee was suggested by Quinn at a meeting with the legislative leaders last week. Madigan initially dismissed it, suggesting it was a way for Quinn to avoid pressuring lawmakers harder to forge a compromise.

Madigan instead pushed for another Senate vote on a House plan that would unilaterally impose pension changes on retired state workers, including increasing the retirement age. The measure received just 16 votes in the Senate during the session that ended May 31 and would need 36 votes for passage during Wednesday's special session.

The Senate supports a union-backed plan that would give retirees options over pension benefits. Many argue it would not save the state as much money as the plan Madigan supports. However, advocates for the Senate plan argue it is more likely to survive an expected legal challenge, since negotiated retirement benefits are currently protected by the state constitution.

A conference committee has not been used in the Legislature since 2005, when lawmakers used it to vote on a non-discrimination bill. There's no guarantee that what such a committee drafts would become law. It ultimately would have to be approved by both chambers, where it could run into the same problems as the existing legislative proposals.

Under Quinn's original idea, the committee would have 10 members. Madigan and Cullerton, both Democrats, would each appoint three legislators to the committee. Senate Republican leader Christine Radogno and House Republican leader Tom Cross each would appoint two members.

"People appointed will be good, competent people," Madigan said. "I'll meet with who I chose and we'll discuss the issue."

As Wednesday's special session approached, a number of senators remained opposed to the Madigan's pension fix even as Quinn called some of them to try to rally support for it.

"He called me last week and he called me this week," said state Sen. Dan Kotowski, a Park Ridge Democrat who supported the Senate's plan. He said the governor told him to "do what you think is best" but urged him to vote for the Madigan pension proposal "because pension reform is urgent for the fiscal health of Illinois."

State Sen. John Mulroe, a Chicago Democrat, said his caucus resented the demand to vote for the House-backed bill.

"As a Senate we are united right now," Mulroe said. "We can't just roll over because the other chamber says we should."

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