Quinn: Shifting pension costs to schools put off

A controversial plan to have local schools pay for teachers’ pensions will be put off for now, Gov. Pat Quinn said Friday.

Just one day before what is expected to be a marathon meeting with state legislative leaders to try to solve the state’s pension crisis, Quinn met with about a dozen House Republican legislators and DuPage County Board Chairman Dan Cronin to unveil his plan, which picked up steam after Quinn gained an important concession from House Speaker Mike Madigan.

Quinn said Madigan agreed to push to the back burner a plan to shift pension costs for suburban and downstate teachers away from the state and onto local school districts.

“Not so long ago, I received a call from (Madigan) and he indicated he is willing to defer any discussion on the cost shift regarding pension reform until a later date,” Quinn said. “We would still keep working on that issue, and we would pay attention to that issue. But it was of such paramount importance that we act now to begin the process that (Madigan) was willing to take that particular issue off the table.”

But the move to appease suburban and downstate lawmakers could anger Chicago officials, who think it’s unfair city schools already pay for pension costs while suburban schools get their bill picked up by the state.

And powerful union leaders continue to push back against benefit cuts that would likely be part of a Quinn plan, arguing teachers and state workers didn’t cause the state’s financial problems.

So a deal is far from final.

Madigan spokesman Steve Brown said Friday the speaker wants to get something done soon, but what a final proposal might include still is fluid.

“There are a dozen different ideas you can put in a bill,” Brown said. “I don’t know that anyone has identified which of those should be included.”

Quinn also declined to discuss specifics of his plan but pointed to a proposal from Democratic state Reps. Elaine Nekritz of Northbrook and Daniel Biss of Evanston that has attracted some bipartisan support.

“(Nekritz) and (Biss) and a number of legislators in a bipartisan group have proposed some very good ideas in the House. Leader Cross and his staff have also contributed to a plan that we feel can get 60 votes in the House, but we have to work together,” Quinn said. “It’s a variety of ideas. We want to make it very clear to the workers of the state, those who teach and work in our state government, that we are determined to protect their pension system.”

A proposal could emerge as soon as Sunday. It may include asking teachers and state workers to pay more of their salaries toward their pensions and take less generous benefits when they retire.

In addition, leaders could consider an idea from state Rep. Mike Fortner, a West Chicago Republican, that would start funneling more money toward the state’s pension debt as it finishes paying off other loans.

Quinn said he is determined to move forward by the end of the current legislative session, which closes Wednesday. Quinn said the state’s $96 billion unfunded pension liability grows by $17.1 million every day.

“The public wants a reformed plan enacted by their legislators that they voted for, that can be sent to the governor, that I could sign into law so that we can put this problem behind us,” Quinn said. “I think we are on the eve of collaboration where people of good faith come together and do what has to be done for the common good.”

State Rep. Darlene Senger, a Naperville Republican, is a financial adviser and member of Quinn’s working group on pension reform. Speaking on behalf of the Republican legislators, she said the news of Madigan’s softening stance on the cost-shifting was critical.

“This is the first time we have heard the details of this proposal, and it was a very productive conversation. The cost shift issue was a big deal for us Republicans and those of us in the downstate portion of the state,” Senger said. “Now we can stick to the real issue, and the real issue is getting our pensions sustainable for the long term for everyone. My gut is telling me this is moving in a really significant direction in regard to getting this thing shored up once and for all.”

Cronin, a former state senator, said he called Friday’s meeting to “facilitate collaboration between Gov. Quinn and DuPage legislators” ahead of the Jan. 9 deadline.

“Illinois’ pension disaster is a statewide problem, not just a Springfield problem,” Cronin said. “This is a crisis that needs to be dealt with right now, not in a few weeks, not in a legislative session, not with a new General Assembly. No. Right now.”

Ÿ Daily Herald State Government Writer Mike Riopell contributed to this report.

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  Gov. Pat Quinn and DuPage County Board Chairman Dan Cronin meet with other lawmakers Friday in Wheaton to discuss pension reform. Bev Horne/
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