URBANA — Gov. Pat Quinn said Tuesday in Urbana that he remains hopeful a special legislative committee can come up with a plan to resolve the state's enormous pension debt this fall.
The governor came to Urbana to talk about road construction and the need for another capital bill, although he offered no specific plan during a wide-ranging news conference at the site of a streetscape project in downtown Urbana.
Asked if he had spoken with any members of the 10-member pension committee, Quinn said, "I've had good conversations with them. I've seen a lot of information that they've put forth. And I think they've made progress."
He also said he had met last week with representatives of labor unions.
"I listened careful to everything they had to say. I think they would all say that we have to do something together to try and reform the system," Quinn said. "I didn't create this. I inherited it."
"For 40 years before me governors and legislators didn't put the proper amount into the pension fund. And what do you do about that? Well, you've got to straighten it out. That's what I'm doing. We've got to repair it and reform it. I'm looking forward to doing something that is fair to retirees but at the same time you cant have they system $100 billion in liability. That's not going to make the grade."
He noted that he is not getting paid because of the pension deadlock, "and I don't think any legislators should take a paycheck until we get the pension reform done fair, constitutional and straightened out."
In response to a question from retired University of Illinois professor Stephen Kaufman, Quinn said his stance on pensions does not represent "reneging" on the state's commitment to employees and retirees.
"I'm not reneging on it. I think all of us understand in Illinois that no matter who you are we have to take a look at the pension systems of our state ... that have $100 billion of liabilities," he said. "If you want to have a pension system you've got to rescue those systems from this $100 billion liability. Folks in Detroit are finding out right now that if you don't straighten out the pension system you end up with 10 cents on the dollar."
Meanwhile, the governor said he had met last week with developers of a proposed $1.1 billion fertilizer plant in Tuscola and that "we still have a ways to go" in order to bring the project to Douglas County.
"There are other states that are competing with us and we have to put our best foot forward," Quinn said. He said Iowa is the "major" competitor for the plant that developers say would provide up to 200 full-time jobs, as well as 2,000 construction jobs.
"This will be a very large economic endeavor. It would create a lot of jobs and also would help our manufacturing and our agriculture in Illinois."
Quinn's appearance Monday morning had been promoted as an announcement on "a major investment in local infrastructure." But the governor did not announce any new construction projects for East Central Illinois.
He said his Illinois Job New program ends next year — an election year — "so I really feel in 2014 we should have a discussion about how we can continue that. We have more to build. We're doing more building on campus. We're over at Parkland Community College, building.
"We have to understand that if we don't build, we don't invest, we don't grow."
He said he wants to pass a new capital bill "as soon as possible," although he did not suggest a revenue stream to back the construction bonds. The bonds for Quinn's Illinois Jobs Now program are backed by a number of sources, including video gaming proceeds, higher drivers licenses and license plate fees and higher liquor and sales taxes.
"We'll get to that; obviously that's a key part of the equation," Quinn said of the revenue source.
Quinn's transportation secretary, Ann Schneider, said Monday's appearance was not in response to Champaign County Board Chairman Alan Kurtz's insistence that Champaign County and other East Central Illinois counties were being shortchanged in state highway construction. Kurtz, in letters to Quinn and Schneider, has argued that a $70 million reconstruction project for the Interstate 57-Interstate 74 interchange northwest of Champaign should be a top state priority.
"This has always been in the works," Schneider said of Quinn's visit Monday. "We would like to see, as the governor mentioned, some sort of capital bill that would allow us to grow the pot we have available to make investments because we think there are some critical investments here that need to be made."
She said the interchange project "is something that we see as a clear need not only for the region but for the state. We're going to be looking at ways where we can create those financing opportunities."
But the interchange project is so expensive, she said, "that's something that would have to be done through a capital bill program."
Kurtz did not attend Monday's press conference, although a number of other local Democratic officials, including Urbana Mayor Laurel Prussing, Champaign Mayor Don Gerard and county party chairman Al Klein, were present.
Also Monday, Quinn was noncommittal when asked if he would support a move to a progressive income tax in Illinois, as state Rep. Naomi Jakobsson, D-Urbana, has proposed.
"That's something that ought to be looked at and debated this year. That's what I think is going to happen," he said.
But when asked if the current 5 percent income tax rate should be extended beyond its scheduled phaseout in 2015, he said, "We're going to have to deal with pension reform first and foremost. That's our number one fiscal issue.
"If we don't get it straightened out, we're going to continue to be vexed by the pensions."