Quinn inclined to call special session on pensions

Gov. Pat Quinn dangled the possibility Tuesday that he’ll call lawmakers back for a special session on Illinois’ nearly $100 billion pension crisis, but he pressed Senate President John Cullerton and House Speaker Michael Madigan to first agree on a fix.

However, Quinn’s efforts to nudge lawmakers hit an immediate snag when Madigan, who was out of the state, didn’t show up to the first closed-door meeting legislative leaders have held since lawmakers adjourned and didn’t participate by phone either.

Quinn said he impressed the urgency of the problem upon Cullerton in the roughly hourlong meeting, which came a day after a major bond house downgraded Illinois’ credit rating. Quinn told reporters he spoke with Madigan last week in Springfield but that the speaker doesn’t have a cellphone — which a spokesman confirmed — and so he left word with Madigan’s wife.

“When he is available we will express to him the same thing I told John Cullerton. ... He will come forward, hopefully soon,” Quinn said. “Those two have to put aside any personal differences and work together to put a state public pension reform bill on my desk so I can sign it into law to help the Illinois economy.”

It was Quinn’s first public comments on legislative matters since lawmakers left Springfield Friday without accomplishing his top priorities, including plans to allow same-sex marriage and deal with Illinois’ worst-in-the-nation pension problem.

Although Quinn made pensions his focus for more than a year, both chambers remained sharply divided with Madigan accusing Cullerton of a “lack of leadership.” The Senate rejected a Madigan-sponsored bill that unilaterally cut benefits and a plan for state universities to start picking up their own retirement costs. A bill backed by Cullerton that gives workers and retirees a choice in retirement benefits was never called for a House floor vote.

Quinn said both leaders would have to move beyond the “personal acrimony” of last week. However, Quinn’s leadership also came under fire, including that he waited several days after session to push forward on a solution. Quinn went to Michigan for a governor’s meeting on the Great Lakes Saturday.

Former White House chief of staff Bill Daley, who is considering a Democratic challenge to Quinn in 2014, said he was “really shocked” that lawmakers left without a deal on pensions.

“What a debacle,” Daley said. “I obviously believe the governor is the one who’s got to bring people together, and that didn’t happen. Leaders do that.”

Republican gubernatorial candidates, including Illinois Treasurer Dan Rutherford and state Sen. Kirk Dillard, echoed the concerns.

“Last summer, when he (Quinn) said we would never leave town without pension reform, I said that if I were him I would make a cameo visit to the mansion for a change and lock all of the stakeholders into a room,” Dillard said. “And no one goes over the wrought iron fence without there being an agreement on pensions.”

For decades, lawmakers have either skipped or shorted payments to Illinois’ five public employee retirement systems, which are about $97 billion short of what’s needed to pay benefits. The full annual payment in 2014 will be about $6 billion — nearly one-fifth of the state’s general revenue fund.

No one disagrees that it’s the most pressing financial issue in Illinois; Fitch Ratings dropped the Illinois rating Monday based on lawmakers’ failure to enact a solution to the state’s public employee pension crisis. But finding consensus has been the hang up.

Quinn backs Madigan’s bill, which purportedly saves more. But Cullerton said his plan would survive a constitutional challenge.

Cullerton’s spokesman said no specifics were hammered out in Tuesday’s meeting, though it was productive.

“Without a proposal clearing both houses, let’s see how we can get something done in the future,” said Cullerton spokesman Ron Holmes. “I hope that the governor can help negotiate a solution.”

Madigan was out of state and unavailable for the meeting, something the governor’s staff knew ahead of time, said Madigan’s spokesman Steve Brown. He said Quinn’s staff and Madigan’s staff were in contact.

“If you look at the two bodies of work, it’s clear where support ought to be,” Brown said of Madigan’s pension plan.

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