SPRINGFIELD — — Illinois lawmakers didn't solve the state's pension crisis Wednesday but saved themselves from embarrassment over an ill-fated special session by taking steps toward a House-Senate compromise through a bipartisan committee.
Both chambers voted to let a panel appointed by the four legislative leaders take a crack at sorting out the $97 billion problem facing public employee retirement programs after lawmakers failed to solve it during the regular session.
But most members of the panel already are wedded to one of two rival proposals, leaving the Legislature immobilized, so there was no indication the new approach would produce a breakthrough on the nation's worst pension mess.
One proposal is spearheaded by House Speaker Michael Madigan, the other by Senate President John Cullerton. Considering those two leaders appointed more than half of the new panel, it wasn't clear how those talks would be any more fruitful than the failed ones over the past three years.
Gov. Pat Quinn remained resolute and, despite having set deadline after deadline for a solution, did it again — he set a deadline of July 9 for the so-called conference committee to report back. One legislative pension expert questioned whether that leaves enough time to even run numbers necessary to reach a deal.
"We can't afford to wait," Quinn said. He said lawmakers have had "ample time to work on this issue" in recent months.
Years of skipped and shorted payments by legislatures and governors left the five state public-employee pension accounts so underfunded that major portions of the last two years have been spent trying to fix them.
The General Assembly again adjourned its spring session without an agreement. The House passed Madigan's plan, which unilaterally raises the retirement age, limits post-career cost-of-living increases and requires employees to contribute more. The Senate adopted the union-backed Cullerton model, which supporters say can survive a court challenge because it offers employees and retirees a choice of compounded increases in retirement or health insurance.