CHICAGO (AP) — Gov. Pat Quinn announced Monday that he is calling lawmakers back to Springfield for a one-day special session to reform Illinois' pensions systems, but he didn't introduce any new ideas on how to break the gridlock surrounding the state's most pressing financial problem.
The Chicago Democrat said legislators can work with existing legislation to get the job done on Aug. 17.
"The vehicles exist to get this done in a day," Quinn said.
Lawmakers failed to overhaul pensions during their spring session earlier in the year. Since then top legislative leaders have been meeting to find a compromise, but negotiations have gone nowhere. Lawmakers have disagreed over whether to shift retirement costs to suburban Chicago and downstate schools districts, and negotiations delved into philosophical questions about equity of school funding.
Quinn said Monday during a speech before the City Club of Chicago that the time for study and analysis is over.
Illinois faces $83 billion in unfunded liability between its five pension systems, and the problem is growing by millions each day. Credit rating agencies have threatened to to lower the state's rating and a national study earlier in the year ranked Illinois as the worst at funding itspension system.
"We can thread this needle," Quinn told reporters after the speech. "This is a crying need of our state. We must act."
Top Republicans welcomed news of a special session but wanted more from Quinn.
"We are continuing to encourage Governor Quinn to take a leadership role to get a comprehensive pension bill passed in the General Assembly," said a joint statement from House Minority Leader Tom Cross and Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno.
A spokesman for House Speaker Mike Madigan, D-Chicago, said little beyond the fact thatpension reform talks were ongoing.
Quinn would not specifically say what he would like the outcome to be next month, beyond comprehensive reform. He would not address specific bills or how he would work to secure the necessary votes.
Several pension reform bills are on the table, including one backed by Cullerton which focuses, among other things, on lower cost-of-living increases for retired state employees and lawmakers. That would let officials put off a decision on what to do about pensions for downstate and suburban Chicago teachers, which is the major sticking point in negotiations.
At the end of the legislative session, Madigan pushed legislation that would make school districts take over the cost of their employees' pensions, which are now paid by the state. That plan lacked the votes to pass, and Republican leaders have continued to condemn it as a backdoor tax increase.
The chance of agreeing on a comprehensive solution, as Quinn is calling for, are slim in an election year. Republicans and Democrats have both accused each other of stall tactics during the negotiations.
Quinn said it was up to the public to put pressure on lawmakers.
He wants to shift costs to schools, saying that phasing such a plan over time would not burden schools. But opponents have said that such a cost shift would raise property taxes and be difficult for schools who already face tight budgets.
Illinois House members had planned to meet Aug. 17 anyway to consider whether or not to expel indicted state Rep. Derrick Smith, who has been charged with bribery.
Senate President John Cullerton agreed with Quinn's call for a lawmaker meeting to addresspensions, but disagreed with the way it was handled.
Cullerton, a Democrat, said that he wanted Quinn to cancel the special session, which would mean the state would have to reimburse some lawmaker travel costs. He said since the House was meeting anyway on that day for the Smith hearing, he could call the Senate back into session.
Cullerton estimated that the special session would cost taxpayers up to $40,000.
"I share the governor's interest in resolving the lingering pension issues, but it makes no sense to spend thousands of taxpayer dollars when there is an easy, no-cost alternative," Cullerton said in a statement.
Quinn spokeswoman Brooke Anderson said the cost of the special session pales in comparison to the mounting unfunded liability of Illinois' pension systems. She said that calling for the special session was the governor's way of taking direct action immediately.