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Illinois pension reform search continues in House

(MCT) — With time running short in the lame-duck session, state lawmakers on Sunday dropped hot-button issues dealing with guns and marijuana but kept alive hopes of reforming pensions and giving driver's licenses to illegal immigrants.

The slimmed-down agenda unfolded rapidly as the House, returning to the Capitol for the first time in a month, pulled an assault weapons ban from consideration and the sponsor of legislation to allow Illinoisans to use marijuana for medical purposes said the chances of quick passage is unlikely.

The spotlight on whether Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn and legislators can come together on financial changes to the state's $96.8 billion government worker pension debt intensified Sunday. House Republican leader Tom Cross of Oswego signed onto a plan offered by two House Democrats and urged GOP members to support it.

Still, Cross acknowledged that Senate President John Cullerton believes a different measure is the only one that meets a state constitutional prohibition against impairing or diminishing public pensions. Cullerton's version, previously passed by the Senate, offers state employees a trade of access to state health care in return for a reduction in retirement benefits.

"Nobody has any idea what the court's going to do," Cross said. "We all have lawyers. There are a lot of lawyers in Chicago. People have opined on what works and doesn't work. The reality is, nobody knows."

Quinn spokeswoman Brooke Anderson said the administration, which wants the package passed before a new Legislature is seated Wednesday, is "encouraged with the momentum."

The pension proposal's fate is uncertain should it pass the House. The Senate went home Thursday but Cullerton left open the possibility of coming back. Cullerton spokeswoman Rikeesha Phelon said senators would return to Springfield Tuesday "to review and hear" a significant pension reform bill if one is passed by the House.

"I can't make any predictions beyond that," she said.

When the governor and legislative leaders met Saturday, Cullerton said at various points he would lobby against the House plan, Cross said. But Cross also said Cullerton indicated that he would allow for a Senate vote if the pension measure passed the House.

Still, if Cullerton balks at the House pension plan, Springfield could devolve into an all-too-familiar political game: The House passes one version of legislation, the Senate passes another, lawmakers pat themselves on the back and then blame the other chamber for failing to achieve needed reform.

Among the key features of the House plan is a freeze on cost-of-living increases for all workers and retirees for as long as six years, although the length of time was still under discussion Sunday night. Once the cost-of-living bumps resume, they would apply only to the first $25,000 of pensions. The inflation adjustments also would not be awarded until a person hits 67, a major departure among public employees who have been allowed to retire much earlier in some cases and begin reaping the benefits of the annual increases immediately.

Under the proposal, employee contributions to pensions would increase 1 percentage point the first year and 1 percentage point the second year. A lid would be put on the size of the pensionable salary based on a Social Security wage base or their current salary, whichever is higher.

The goal is to put in place a 30-year plan that would fully fund the Illinois pension systems, which are considered the worst-funded in the nation.

Meanwhile, a proposal to allow undocumented immigrants to qualify for Illinois driver's licenses could get its first House test Monday. Sponsoring Rep. Eddie Acevedo, D-Chicago, said he would call the Senate-passed bill on the House floor if it advances from committee.

Also Sunday, a House panel defeated a bill to require companies to file public disclosure forms when they pay no state income taxes.

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