Illinois House takes first major vote on pension reform

May 2, 2013

AP/File
Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan. Madigan's pension reform plan passed the state house Thursday. Its future in the senate is murky.

The Illinois House of Representatives took a major vote Thursday afternoon on pension reform. Many lawmakers said the plan is critical to the future of state government.

Shortly before House members passed the latest pension plan by a vote of 62-51, Speaker Michael Madigan (D-22) spoke about the proposal’s importance to the basic functions of government.

“In my judgment, this is a critical action that must be taken now,” Madigan said. “Must be taken for future budget-making. Must be taken for the fiscal well-being and reputation of the State of Illinois.”

State Representatives Esther Golar (D-6) and Camille Lilly (D-78) voted present.

Illinois has the worst-funded pensions of any state in the country. It has nearly $100 billion in pension debt.

The bill, which passed with two votes to spare, includes measures like raising the retirement age and capping pay increases state employees get in retirement. One of the most controversial aspects of pension negotiations, a proposal that would shift the cost of downstate and suburban teachers’ pensions from the state onto local school districts, was not included in the House-approved bill. Madigan said he wants to address that issue in a separate bill.

Labor groups vehemently oppose the plan and say it goes against Illinois’ constitution. Because they have vowed to sue, Madigan said he left judges’ pensions out of this bill so that there would not be a conflict of interest when the measure is debated in Illinois courts.

Instead, the measure approved by the House would affect teachers, university workers, lawmakers and other state employees.

The potential lawsuit and constitutionality of the bill were also on the mind of House members as they debated the plan.

“We have no choice,” said House Republican Leader Tom Cross (R-97). “If I’m a state worker or if I’m a teacher, a university worker, I have every right to be mad as hell.”

This is the first major bill the full House of Representatives has approved on pension reform, but its future is uncertain in the Senate.

Senate President John Cullerton (D-6th) supports a different plan that would give retirees the option of getting state-funded health care coverage in retirement, or getting pay increases. Cullerton has argued that option meets the standards set by the state constitution. On Wednesday, Cullerton’s office released a statement saying labor leaders have, “offered a credible and constitutional plan for consideration.” But no details of that plan have been made public. Before Wednesday, labor groups had asked lawmakers to change how the state taxes different industries as a way to pay for pensions, but that idea has garnered little attention from legislative leaders and the governor.

For his part, Gov. Pat Quinn has praised both Cullerton’s pension plan and the bill the House approved Thursday. He has said pension reform is his top priority, but some lawmakers from both parties have been critical of the governor for not doing more to pick a side in the debate. In a statement after Thursday’s House vote, Quinn said, “Today’s action sends a strong message to the people and businesses of our state: Illinois is ready for reform and we understand that this reform is critical to building a brighter future for all.”

Tony Arnold covers state politics for WBEZ. Follow him @tonyjarnold.