Mt. Vernon Register-News

State News

June 19, 2013

Wanted: Committee compromise on Ill. pensions



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."

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