Pension proposals going up to the last minute in Springfield

January 8, 2013

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The fate of a measure to reform Illinois’ pension system remains up in the air.

Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn has said repeatedly his top priority is dealing with the state’s pensions, the worst-funded in the country. He’s held countless press conferences and made the argument that pension costs take away money for other state programs.

House Republican Leader Tom Cross said Monday that proposals to deal with the pension funds have been around for two years.

“We’ve talked about these to a point where we don’t need to talk any more. We’ve gotta do this,” Cross said Tuesday before a House committee that debated the pensions issue.

That committee eventually approved a measure dealing with the issue, but it still needs the approval of the full House and Senate, which could be hard to do since the Senate is waiting to see what action the House takes and November’s election winners are sworn in Wednesday. Once the new members of the House and Senate are sworn in, all legislation starts from scratch.

Rikeesha Phelon, a spokeswoman for Senate President John Cullerton, said senators are “on standby until we see action from the House on pensions.” The Senate adjourned last week.

Several union leaders have voiced their opposition to many pension reform proposals, including versions passed in the House committee and the Senate, saying they’re unconstitutional and state employees shouldn’t be punished because the state didn’t pay its part for years.

Cinda Klickna is with the Illinois Education Association. She said her own father is a 95-year-old retired state employee, who has letters he wrote decades ago asking legislators to fund the pension system.

“He pulls out letters he wrote back in the ‘70s and ‘80s asking for the state to finally fund the pensions and here we are,” Klickna said after the committee vote Monday, addressing both the emotions that go along with the issue and how long it’s been since the state paid its part for retirement plans.

“I just find it immoral and wrong and the proposal’s just unconstitutional,” she said.

Legislators have continued to debate a menu of proposals to address the $95 billion pension debt and making the system sustainable going forward. Those plans range from increasing the retirement age to increasing employee contributions. But among the sticking points that remain to be resolved include finding a plan that could pass constitutional muster and a legal challenge that’s likely to come from employee unions.

In 2012, the Senate approved a plan that would force some employees to choose between receiving pay increases in retirement or getting state subsidized health care.

The plan approved by the House committee calls for a cut in employee pay raises in retirement. It also does not address one of the most controversial proposals involved in pension reform negotiations, which would shift the cost of downstate and suburban teachers’ pensions onto the local school districts.

Over the weekend, House Speaker Michael Madigan said those districts had been receiving a “free lunch” by not having to pay for their own teachers’ retirements. Both Quinn and Madigan had supported the cost shift proposal as part of pension negotiations, but several Republicans have said it would force local property taxes to increase and the cost shift proposal has temporarily been taken off the table.