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Madigan brushes off labor group's call for a summit on pensions

(MCT) — House Speaker Michael Madigan shot down a union coalition's proposal to have a summit on government worker pensions, saying Wednesday that organized labor has had input but "strongly opposed" efforts to fix the state's finances.

Madigan, the state's Democratic Party chairman, called for unions to come to the bargaining table with an "honest proposal that recognizes the state's serious fiscal condition and puts government employees on par with those in the private sector relative to a benefits package."

The union group's leader, Illinois AFL-CIO President Michael Carrigan, said he was "surprised and disappointed" by the Democratic speaker's position and contended residents "want and deserve leaders who work together to solve problems."

Madigan told Carrigan his suggestion of a pension summit in Burr Ridge Feb. 11 "is not timely" and that one could have been called years ago when Illinois "first started to grapple with this complex and controversial topic."

The exchange of testy letters illustrates a growing rift between Illinois Democrats and their friends in labor at a time when the state's pension funds are $96.8 billion in debt. Despite imploring lawmakers to take action, Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn has seen no legislation hit his desk that would bring about the comprehensive reforms he seeks.

The Madigan-Carrigan confrontation surfaced on a day when the Quinn administration postponed plans to borrow $500 million for construction projects, a move that followed last week's downgrading by Standard & Poor's that ranked Illinois' credit rating at the bottom of all states. Bad ratings generally translate into higher costs for taxpayers.

Earlier this month, lawmakers adjourned a lame-duck session without approving pension reform. Senate President John Cullerton is pushing a plan that would give state workers the choice of accepting lower yearly cost-of-living increases in return for a guarantee of health insurance.

In the House, rank-and-file lawmakers tried to get traction on a plan that would see workers chip in more from their paychecks and rein in automatic cost-of-living increases. Retirees would have not gotten automatic annual inflation bumps until age 67, and cost-of-living increases would have been frozen for several years under the proposal.

Although the House solution was viewed as more comprehensive, Cullerton questioned whether it would hold up in court. Cullerton argues that under the Illinois Constitution, workers must be given a choice when pension changes are made.

The new session, which is scheduled to run through May, sees Democrats with veto-proof majorities in the House and Senate. There also are plenty of new lawmakers who need time to be brought up to speed on the pension problems. Quinn has warned that pension payments are gobbling up more of the budget and forcing cuts to education and social spending. That could pressure lawmakers to find a pension fix to avoid painful cuts.

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