SPRINGFIELD — Despite high hopes from Gov. Pat Quinn, a push to overhaul the state’s massively underfunded employee retirement systems by a Wednesday deadline remains a tough sell.
On Thursday, after two frustrating days in the Senate of delays and inaction on issues like gay marriage and gun control, Senate President John Cullerton adjourned the 59-seat chamber and signaled they may not return before the clock runs out on the current General Assembly at noon Wednesday.
“Maybe we’ll see you next Tuesday. It’s not likely,” Cullerton said.
Members of the House are scheduled to be in session Sunday night through Tuesday, with Wednesday set aside to swear in members of the new General Assembly.
That gives the House roughly the same amount of time as the Senate was in session to hammer out a controversial overhaul of the state’s pension systems.
If that occurs, the Senate would have to return and act before noon Wednesday.
That would appear to be a tall order after what happened — or didn’t happen — in the Senate Wednesday and Thursday.
Gay rights supporters fumbled an attempt to legalize same-sex marriage in the Democrat-controlled chamber, saying they couldn’t bring the measure to the full Senate for a vote because some lawmakers who might have voted “yes” were out of town.
Two pieces of gun legislation — bans on semiautomatic weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines — stalled amid criticism that they were potentially unconstitutional and virtually unenforceable.
The only pension-related legislation that advanced out of the Senate was something the House previously declined to vote on.
Cullerton acknowledged the same kind of roadblocks could arise in the House.
“It’s possible, since the House is going to be in session Sunday, Monday and Tuesday, that they may take up some action that would require us to come back.
I don’t anticipate that, but it’s possible,” Cullerton said.
Rep. Adam Brown, R-Decatur, said the Chicago Democrats who control state government need to shift their focus away from “diversionary” issues such as gun control and gay marriage and zero in on the state’s budget woes.
“It’s been frustrating to watch,” Brown said.
Despite the Senate’s inaction on Wednesday and Thursday, the governor said Friday that he remains confident the House will be able to advance a pension overhaul in the final hours of the lame-duck session.
He told reporters at a DuPage County news conference that he was “real optimistic” a plan could be hammered out.
“We’ve got to act on this issue,” Quinn said.
At issue is a $96 billion shortfall in the state’s five employee retirement systems. The state’s annual pension obligation is crowding out spending on other programs, resulting in less money for schools, universities and other programs.
Any solution needs to pass legal muster. A provision in the state constitution prohibits reducing pension benefits for public employees.
There are a number of pension options on the table, but each carries its own set of pitfalls.
Labor unions representing most of the state’s employees have presented a plan in which workers would pay more toward their pensions without giving up any benefits. But, it also relies on new revenue from a series of business taxes that have not fared well in previous attempts to approve them.
A coalition of rank-and-file lawmakers recently outlined a plan that would boost the retirement age and alter how cost-of-living increases are calculated.
Another option focuses on shifting some of the state’s pension costs to local school districts. After previously insisting on a cost shift, House Speaker Michael Madigan now says a vote on the shift could be delayed.
“We need to pass whatever we can pass. If that means deferring the cost shift for some period, he’ll talk with others about developing a bill that doesn’t have a cost shift in it,” Madigan spokesman Steve Brown said Friday.
Quinn called the deferral of the cost shift a major step forward because such a move could bring reluctant downstate lawmakers on board.
In May, lawmakers from central and southern Illinois balked at the cost shift, saying it is unfair to ask more from schools when the state is already underfunding them. And, they say it could result in property tax increases on many downstate residents.
“I’m strongly opposed to a cost shift,” Adam Brown said.
While some are expressing hope that a proposal could be adopted by the House as the clock winds down on the lame-duck session, skepticism remains.
Steve Brown, Madigan’s spokesman, said expectations of success should be tempered based on what usually happens when the General Assembly meets.
“You have all these different topics that you discuss and at the end most of them don’t come to a vote or come to a successful vote. That’s common practice in Illinois,” Steve Brown said.