Illinois officials emerged from a closed-door meeting Wednesday divided over the next steps in solving the state's most pressing financial issue: somehow closing an $83 billion funding gap for its retirement systems.
Nearly a week after last Thursday's legislative session deadline, Illinois officials held another meeting about pension reform, and still came away at an impasse.
A dreadful credit rating from Standard & Poor that could potentially increase the state's interest on money it makes from selling bonds seemed to spur the two-hour meeting.
At the heart of lawmakers' dispute is whether to make suburban Chicago and downstate schools pay for their own employees' retirement costs, which the state currently pays. Republicans and some Democrats fear that would lead to property tax increases, but House Speaker Michael Madigan and Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn say the change is necessary to fix the pension system long term.
Madigan explained his reasoning to reporters after the meeting.
"If you wish to provide for reform of the pension systems, if you want to have responsibility in developing pensions, then you have to provide that the people who spend the money actually pay the bill," he said.
Quinn has been firm about the need for action on pension reform.
“Our credit rating agencies in particular see that as a very important mission, and so we have to roll up our sleeves and do it all," he explained.
The state contributes to the pensions of hundreds of thousands of public employees but hasn't paid enough to keep the retirement systems healthy. The money available for Illinois pensions is around $83 billion less than what will be needed in the future. Closing that gap requires state government to increase contributions dramatically each year, leaving less money for other services and threatening Illinois' shaky finances.
Quinn has said he'll call lawmakers back for a summer legislative session, but some legislators and a Quinn spokeswoman said the matter was not discussed Wednesday as lawmakers struggled to move forward.
"We're very close," Quinn told reporters. "We've agreed on many principles. We have one principle we agree on, but we have to agree on the implementation of that principle."