Slow going on pension fix

Progress on a pension reform plan is coming in fits and starts for a legislative panel directed to come up with a solution.

Illinois' impending public pension disaster has made a lot of news over the past six weeks, but mostly for reasons not associated with a fix.

Legislators have repeatedly failed to face up to this vexing financial problem, most recently during a special session of the House and Senate called in June by Gov. Pat Quinn. Rather than give up entirely, legislative leaders formed a special conference committee made up of members from both houses and decided to try yet again to come up with a solution that can win majority support.

Their work has since been overshadowed because of a political tug-of-war between Quinn and legislators that erupted when Quinn decreed that legislators would not receive their monthly paychecks until they solve the pension problem. So far, they've been denied their July checks, and they are expected to be denied their August paychecks.

Outraged over Quinn's salary decision, House Speaker Michael Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton have filed a lawsuit challenging Quinn's decision to withhold their pay as unconstitutional. It's not, but that's another issue altogether.

Meanwhile, operating beneath the media's radar screen, conference committee members have been considering a variety of proposals and running the numbers to see how much money the proposed pension rule changes would have.

There's no doubt that committee members are working hard to address a difficult problem. But there is considerable doubt about whether they're getting anywhere. So far, the messages have been mixed.

"We're quite close. I think it's a matter of getting a few more details hashed out. How long that takes, I can't predict right now," said state Rep. Elaine Nekritz of Northbrook, one of the leading Democrats on the pension issue.

There's no mistaking the hopeful tone of Nekritz's words. But contrast them to comments made by state Sen. Bill Brady, a Bloomington Republican.

"The biggest obstacle is probably differing opinions on what amount of savings needs to be. At the end of the day, I think it's coming down to how much savings is necessary to protect what people have earned and be affordable to future generations," he said.

If Brady is accurate, the conference committee hasn't made much progress since the Legislature's earlier standoffs between separate House and Senate bills, one sponsored by Madigan and another sponsored by Cullerton.

The Senate rejected Madigan's bill because it would have saved too much, and, consequently, affronted retirees, public employees and union leaders. Madigan refused to call Cullerton's pension bill, which passed the Senate, because he perceived it to do so little as to be not worth passing.

Cullerton's Senate bill wasn't worth passing, but that doesn't mean House members wouldn't have passed it anyway. They're dying to declare the problem solved and kick the can down the road one more time.

News reports indicate the conference committee members are studying a plan prepared and recommended by public university presidents in Illinois. It would increase worker contributions, reduce annual cost-of-living increases and create hybrid retirement plans for new workers.

That approach, like those of Madigan and Cullerton, also is meeting resistance. A study put together by a labor-related group and a University of Illinois-Chicago professor and released last week charged that the university presidents' proposals poses a significant and unfair burden on retirees.

That conclusion may well be correct. But here's the problem — any solution that actually is workable will be painful because the problem is so severe. Illinois' five public pension funds are underfunded by $100 billion, a sum caused by irresponsible spending decisions by governors and legislators going back many years.

Legislators have been watching the underfunding amount increase for years. Every time they thought about taking action to address the problem they backed away because of their fear of casting unpopular votes. Now the problem is bigger than ever, a mind-boggling sum that will require painful solutions. It's somewhat akin to doctors severing an arm or leg to save a patient's life.

Something has got to give because the status quo is not sustainable. Members of the conference committee know that; they also know any solution they offer to their fellow legislators in the House and Senate will be as welcome as a skunk at a garden party. No wonder it's taking them so long.

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