Legislators eye possible Dec. 3 return to Springfield for pensions

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SPRINGFIELD —Driven by reported progress toward a state pension deal, House and Senate staffs began surveying members Wednesday about a potential Dec. 3 return to the state Capitol for possible action on a plan to solve Illinois’ $100 billion pension crisis.

House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago, Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno, R-Lemont, and House Minority Leader Jim Durkin, R-Western Springs, have held a series of closed-door sessions, including one Wednesday, aimed at striking a deal on the long-delayed pension-reform issue. The upshot from Wednesday’s session in Chicago was to put out word among all four caucuses to keep at least a day and perhaps as much as a week free in early December to return to Springfield.Chicago Sun-Times columnist Rich Miller, publisher of Capitol Fax, first reported the breakthrough on scheduling.

The date that the leaders are zeroing in on is significant on the political calendar. Candidates seeking a spot on the 2014 primary ballot have to file their nominating petitions with the state by Dec. 2. While there is no deal yet on pensions, incumbents in both parties would be spared the possibility of labor-driven primary challenges if they are asked to vote on pension-reform legislation after the nominating petition filing deadline.

“We are checking with our members. That’s a good sign of progress. There’s enough progress to at least be checking schedules. That’s all I can say at this point,” Cullerton spokeswoman Rikeesha Phelon said. “I’m not confident at this point to confirm we can get the bulk of our members here. But we’re checking schedules. We haven’t put out enough feelers to know whether it’s doable.”

Her GOP counterpart characterized the talks similarly.

“The leaders continue to have productive discussions,” Radogno spokeswoman Patty Schuh said. “What we’ve advised our members is they should hold Tuesday, Dec. 3, as a possible day of return and that they may want to be flexible on other days that week, as well. This is an effort to get information out as soon as possible and to prepare because we don’t have all the answers, yet.”

None of the caucus representatives would provide an outline of what specifically is on the table in the private discussions that have not included Gov. Pat Quinn. Nor would they confirm when the next meeting is; at least five of these closed-door sessions have taken place since the start of the legislative fall session that began in late October.

Phelon said a focal point of the continued talks remains finding a way to structure changes to compounded, 3-percent cost-of-living increases that state retirees and retired teachers now get. Those increases are regarded as one of the main drivers of Illinois’ worsening pension position.

“They’re still focusing on how to construct the COLA part of this,” she said.

Madigan spokesman Steve Brown said after Wednesday’s meeting that the leaders are “continuing to make progress” and that the speaker’s staff is “advising people they could be asked to return as soon as Dec. 3, and they might be well-served to hold open the rest of that week. Beyond that, there’s nothing more definitive.”

Durkin spokeswoman Vicki Crawford said there is no consensus yet, but the aim is to strike a deal by the end of the year.

“They’re making progress. We’re still waiting for numbers,” she said. “No deal yet.”

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