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Move would unfold at Wednesday special session

ElectionsInterior PolicyPension and WelfareJustice SystemMichael Madigan

Unable to round up enough Senate votes for a sweeping measure to overhaul the state’s public employee pension system, Gov. Pat Quinn has backed off in favor of a plan to a form a committee designed to forge a compromise on the hot-button issue.  

The move sets the stage for what’s shaping up as an anti-climactic special session on Wednesday, which Quinn called in an attempt to break the gridlock between leading Democrats who have differing philosophies on how to overhaul the heavily indebted retirement system.

It’s a change in plan from the one Quinn put forth late last week when he asked Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago, to call a vote on a pension reform bill that already passed the House. Cullerton reluctantly agreed, but argued support would be far below the 36 votes needed to send the bill to Quinn’s desk.

Citing the “ongoing refusal” of Cullerton and House Speaker Michael Madigan “to work together,” Quinn is switching to his backup plan: forming what’s known as a conference committee to try to strike an agreement between the House and the Senate.

For that to happen, however, the Senate must first vote to reject the very proposal Quinn wanted lawmakers to approve. That would then send the measure back to the House, where members would have to refuse to “recede” from the pension proposal for the special committee to be formed. The panel would consist of five members – three Democrats and two Republicans – from both the House and Senate.  

Lawmakers on the panel will be tasked with finding common ground on pension reform, but there’s no guarantee the effort will be successful. But that hasn’t stopped Quinn from setting an early July deadline for the committee to put forth a measure to be voted on. 

Quinn’s office hailed the decision to form a conference committee as a small victory, saying it’s the first time Cullerton and House Speaker Michael Madigan “have agreed on a means to an end.” 

Indeed, Madigan’s support for the panel is a departure from last week, when he raised concerns the idea was “an effort by the governor to distance himself from the process.” 

Today, Madigan spokesman Steve Brown said the speaker’s change of heart indicates his “continued willingness to compromise with people” as the search for a pension solution continues.

Cullerton spokeswoman Rikeesha Phelon said agreeing to a conference committee ahead of Wednesday’s special session “seems like the best way to move the ball forward” while avoiding the “theater” of seeing the House pension bill once again fail in the Senate. 

Still, the panel will not have an easy job of reconciling the differences between the House and Senate and their Democratic leaders.  

The plan backed by Madigan, which Quinn most strongly favors, would save more money by scaling back benefits for hundreds of retirees and current state workers.  However, Cullerton argues that plan isn’t constitutional and wouldn’t survive a legal challenge.  He favors a less ambitious strategy backed by organized labor that would let those who retire keep their current pension benefits as long as they forgo health coverage. Or they could keep health coverage and accept scaled-back retirement benefits.

mcgarcia@tribune.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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