CHICAGO — — Members of the bipartisan panel charged with drafting a solution to Illinois' monstrous pension problem began their odyssey Thursday with hours of familiar testimony about the nearly $100 billion crisis and faint hints that compromise might still be possible after repeated stalemates at the state Capitol.
The committee's members said they were dedicated to finding common ground, but most didn't seem optimistic that they would meet Gov. Pat Quinn's July 9 deadline for coming up with a proposal. And they left Thursday's packed meeting without a clear plan aside from staying in communication and setting a second public hearing for Wednesday.
"What I'm committed to ... is to work on a daily basis, communicating with the conference committee members to solve the problem," said Democratic Sen. Kwame Raoul, the chair of the committee. "I'm not foreign to issues that have reached impasse and working beyond impasse. I've done so in the Legislature on multiple issues. And on none of them have I set a firm deadline because I think it's somewhat irresponsible and setting yourself up for failure."
The 10-member panel, known as a conference committee, was formed last week, the end result of a special session on pensions as both chambers remained divided with competing plans from House Speaker Michael Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton.
The five senators and five representatives slogged through nearly five hours of testimony Thursday from unions, business groups, Quinn's budget director and others who again painted gloomy pictures of Illinois' worst-in-the-nation pension problem and the tough choices in tackling it.
Quinn, who has made pensions his focus for more than a year, scolded group members for taking "their sweet time." After signing several education funding bills into law, he reiterated his stance Thursday that failure to address the pension problem squeezes out other spending and is costing the state more. The pension problem has also led to the repeated downgrades of the state's credit rating and Illinois taxpayers have to pay at least $130 million extra in interest payments for a bond sale this week because of it.