A local legislator has been named to a special committee that will try to solve the Illinois public pension mess. State Rep. Michael Zalewski (D-Riverside) was one of three Democratic state representatives named to 10-person legislative conference committee by Illinois Speaker of the House Michael Madigan.

“I think it’s a really good thing to be appointed to the conference committee, because I’ve worked hard to try and correct the state’s finances now for a few years and it’s important that we get a comprehensive solution to the pension crisis,” Zalewski said. “I look forward to working with the other members of the committee over the next couple weeks to try and get a solution that we can take back to our caucuses and get a bill passed.”

The state has a public pension debt that is estimated to approach $100 million, and Illinois has the most underfunded state public pension system in the nation.

Legislators have wrestled with the issue of how to fix the pension system for the last two years and have yet to come to an agreement on a solution. This year the legislature adjourned without passing a pension bill, as the two legislative chambers were divided on how to change the current system.

A bill backed by Madigan passed the state House of Representatives but failed in the Senate, while another bill championed by Senate President John Cullerton (D-Chicago) was not called for a vote in the House.

Gov. Pat Quinn proposed that a rarely used conference committee be formed to resolve the differences and come up with the bill. The conference committee includes 10 legislators — six Democrats and four Republicans. Madigan appointed three House Democrats, Cullerton appointed three Senate Democrats. House minority leader Tom Cross (R-Oswego) appointed two House Republicans and Senate minority leader Christine Radogno (R-Lemont) appointed two Senate Republicans.

The committee held the first of what were expected to be two public hearings on June 27 in Chicago.

Zalewski, first elected to the legislature in 2008, was selected by Madigan because of his interest in the pension issue, and because he is a lawyer equipped to deal with the constitutional issues that pension reform raises said Steve Brown, a spokesman for Madigan.

Zalewski has also supported Madigan’s bill.

“I’ve been a strong supporter of what we’ve been trying to do in the House for the last few months, which is a comprehensive approach that reduces the unfunded liability and brings down next year’s payment to an acceptable level,” Zalewski said. “I also think that hopefully people think of me as someone who can work with other members of the legislature and find some common ground with other members of the legislature.”

Although the pension issue has bedeviled lawmakers for years, Zalewski said he is optimistic the conference committee can come up with a solution that can become law.

“I think we’re going to come to an agreement,” Zalewski said. “That’s just one view of the conference committee membership, but my sense is that we’ll be able to bridge the gap between the House and Senate and get a report that can go to both chambers and get a majority. That’s my expectation.”

A conference report needs to be signed by at least six members of the conference committee to go the House and Senate for final approval, Zalewski said. As a practical matter, Zalewski said that bipartisan support will be needed to pass a bill to deal with the pension issue.

“I think we need the support from at least one of the members of all four caucuses to proceed,” Zalewski said. “I just think it’s going to be hard to proceed without having at least one hand on an oar.”

Zalewski said that he hoped the conference committee can issue its report by the middle of July.

“I don’t know that we can meet the governor’s July 9 deadline,” Zalewski said.

Zalewski also issued a press release last week saying he will not accept per diem payments of $111 a day for presence at special legislative sessions this summer.

“I believe not accepting the per diem is the right thing to do,” Zalewski said.