Pat Quinn, Illinois' current governor, says he was "put on earth" to solve the problem and that the upcoming session offers the best opportunity in his lifetime to do so. He gave lawmakers a deadline of Jan. 9, the end of a one-week legislative session when several dozen lame-duck lawmakers can vote without worrying about facing voters again.
Illinois lawmakers are quick to point out that several structural issues make the state's situation especially difficult to solve, from the way teacher pensions are funded to especially strong language in the state constitution that protects public employee benefits.
In 2010 they did make some gains, agreeing to changes for new public employees. But a major fix — dealing with benefits to the 700,000 existing workers and retirees — has remained elusive. A 66 percent state income tax hike passed in early 2011 didn't generate enough money to make a dent in the pension shortfall.
Union officials have offered lawmakers a deal, agreeing to contribute more to their own pensions if the state makes its full contribution each year and closes some tax loopholes for corporations.
"For decades, they had the choice of raising adequate revenue or cutting back on spending," said Anders Lindall, spokesman for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. "They found a third way, and that third way was habitually using pension funds like a credit card."
Even House Speaker Michael Madigan — who's been speaker for 27 of his 42 years in office and is considered the most powerful lawmaker in Springfield — was critical of how legislators have ducked the issue in an interview with a reporter from ABC's Chicago affiliate.
Too many lawmakers, Madigan said, "say the right thing for public consumption, but then when it comes time to cast a difficult vote, they're in the bathroom somewhere."