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State pension reform deadline looms

(MCT) — Gov. Pat Quinn said Thursday he remains confident lawmakers can reach a deal to reform the state's government employee pension system by his Jan. 9 deadline, despite the fact House and Senate leaders can't even agree on which days to come to work.

Legislators initially were scheduled to return to Springfield beginning Jan. 2 and hold session every day through Jan. 9, when a new crop of lawmakers is set to be sworn in and the reset button is hit on legislation. But both chambers have shortened their schedules, meaning it will be even more difficult to hammer out an agreement in the time frame set by Quinn.

The Senate now plans to meet Jan. 2 through Jan. 4 and go home, with the House scheduled to convene Jan. 6 through Jan. 8. If necessary, the Senate may return Jan. 8 to act on legislation passed by the House.

That pace is far from the frenzied push Quinn has been calling for the past several weeks, but the governor says he hasn't lost hope. Even Quinn is planning a short break, a trip to Florida to watch Northern Illinois University compete in the Orange Bowl on New Year's Day.

"I really feel that in that three-day period, we can accomplish a lot," Quinn said. "We have made some good progress, I think, in discussions on the pension reform. I think we're narrowing the differences. We have to work hard at that, and I'm optimistic that we can get a plan that can get a good vote in both houses and get this behind us. This is our No. 1 challenge, and it'd be a great achievement if we can get it done."

The governor, however, offered no specifics on what that "progress" entails. Lawmakers remain divided over which of two key pension reform proposals should move forward. Neither plan would fully address the state's $96 billion pension funding shortfall.

Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago, is pushing a plan that would cut costs for the two retirement systems covering state workers and legislators. The measure narrowly passed the Senate this year but has failed to gain momentum in the House.

Under the proposal, lawmakers and other state employees would be required to accept cost-of-living increases below the current 3 percent compounded level if they want to keep access to their state health insurance and have salary increases totaled into their final pension earnings.

Cullerton estimates the changes could save the state as much as $31 billion over the next 30 years. Critics say it's a half-measure because it doesn't deal with pension costs of teachers, judges or university workers.

Cullerton spokeswoman Rikeesha Phelon said the measure is a first step that moves the ball forward and "the only pension reform bill positioned for real action."

Meanwhile, a bipartisan group of rank-and-file House lawmakers have unveiled a plan that would affect more workers. The proposal would require employees to contribute another 2 percentage points of their paychecks, limit cost-of-living increases and increase the retirement age for workers.

Advocates say the plan would immediately reduce the state's unfunded pension liability to $67 billion. Critics question whether the proposal is constitutional.

Quinn has said both plans have merits, but the key is getting something on his desk to sign in order to avoid another credit downgrade from ratings agencies.

"This is not something to be delayed," Quinn said.

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