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.
But neither chamber approved the other's bill, and impasse again was the winner.
The conference committee can start meeting next week, said Cullerton, a Chicago Democrat like Madigan. It has six majority Democrats and four Republicans — five each from House and Senate.
"We would hope that there will be some new ideas, not just the same bills that have passed," Cullerton said. "We understand, everybody in our caucus realizes you have to reach a compromise in order to change to get enough votes to pass something. So we anticipate this won't be just a rehash of the same thing we've already voted on."
While it sounds like a transcendent step toward forging a pact, the conference committee was once a routine, and now perhaps anachronistic, means to meeting a constitutional goal that House and Senate versions of the same bill be identical, down to the last comma. The process goes like it went Wednesday with the pension legislation: The Madigan plan was attached to a Senate bill. The Senate refused to accept the change, and it went back to the House, which refused to pull back the Madigan version, setting up the conference committee.
"This isn't some magical process someone pulled out, and there's absolutely no parliamentary need for a conference committee," said Charles Wheeler III, a long-time Chicago Sun-Times legislative correspondent and now journalism professor at the University of Illinois at Springfield. "But it's a way for people to save face and to make it look like something's happening."
The practice has taken a back seat in recent years to working out agreements ahead of time, different procedures for amending legislation, and fewer opportunities for lawmakers to offer amendments when a bill is ready for a floor vote.
There's nothing keeping lawmakers from following the less formal process now, and the conference committee title doesn't ensure success, particularly with the tight timeline.
Committee appointee Rep. Elaine Nekritz, a Northbrook Democrat who crafted the Madigan plan, said Quinn is too optimistic about how quickly the hard work can be completed.
"He needs to take account of the fact how difficult it is to get numbers and have evidence and data to move ahead," Nekritz said.
Negotiations will likely happen behind closed doors, but the committee is expected to have two public hearings, Madigan spokesman Steve Brown said.
"Retirees are really scared about what's coming," said committee member Rep. Mike Zalewski, a Riverside Democrat. "If we don't make this public it will exacerbate those fears."
But it's a forgotten practice that hasn't been used since 2005 and offers uncertain promises. Whatever a committee produces would still need approval of both squabbling chambers.
When Wheeler followed the Capitol in the 1970s and 1980s, each legislative session would end with scores of conference committee reports.
One notorious example of the General Assembly's use of a conference committee occurred in 1989, when Sen. Emil Jones, a Chicago Democrat and later Senate president, sponsored legislation that added 3 percent compounded interest to annual pension benefits.
Lawmakers were already concerned about the pension debt and Prophetstown Republican Sen. Calvin Schuneman warned his colleagues before the June 30, 1989 vote that the sweetener would increase the pension contribution to $1 billion a year by the mid-1990s; this year, it's more than $6 billion.
"I knew that in order for pensions to work properly you had to send some money ahead. You couldn't keep raising benefits and not put any money in ... " Schuneman said Wednesday. "We were headed for the disaster we're in."