Pension overhaul inches forward

Fate uncertain in full House

November 9, 2011

Kristen McQueary

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(AP/File)
A bill to reform Illinois' pension system narrowly passed out of committee, but faces a tougher test before the full House.

The 5-4 vote approving a controversial pension bill in an Illinois House committee Tuesday night didn’t seem to surprise the standing room-only crowd.

But the debate gave labor leaders and lawmakers their first chance in months to toss verbal jabs.

The bill would require current state workers, teachers, university personnel, General Assembly members and judges to pay more for their retirement benefits going forward, move into a 401K-type system or work longer to receive higher retirement pay.

The bill didn’t change much from May when it was first introduced. Sponsors tweaked parts of the three-tiered pension formulas but kept the bill’s framework intact through an amendment that now moves to the House floor.  

Unions representing affected workers privately have clashed with the bill’s supporters, namely the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago—a business group—and bill sponsor Rep. Tom Cross, Republican House leader from Oswego. During the summer, a dozen meetings behind-the-scenes meetings between all sides yielded little consensus.

So two hours of testimony in a Springfield hearing room gave supporters and opponents a chance to air their complaints. And they did.

Union leaders emphasized the state’s notorious failure to match its contributions to the pension system for decades, leading to a nationally infamous unfunded pension liability of $85 billion. The state will owe about $7 billion in pension payments next year, gobbling up a significant portion of the state’s discretionary budget. 

Henry Bayer, executive director of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said the bill doesn’t force the state going forward to make its share of pension payments, which would perpetuate the problem. There are no penalties if state lawmakers skip payments or make reduced ones, which is what caused the unfunded liability in the first place.

“This bill is a bill that masquerades as pension reform and should have been introduced on Halloween,” Bayer said.  

Cross said several times he agreed with Bayer. He said he waited for a proposal from the union for months to find a way to make the state more accountable. But the opportunity for organized labor to negotiate dwindled with each week that passed without sincere suggestions, Cross said.

“It started in January of this year, Henry,” Cross said. “We’ve had 11 months, and no one’s offered one thing to me.”

Bayer interrupted: “People said, ‘Why weren’t you at the negotiating table?’ I said, ‘Where’s the table?’”

“You were in my office a month ago,” Cross replied.

Cross and his bill co-sponsor, House Speaker Michael Madigan, sat together as proponents of the bill before the House personnel and pensions committee, which sent the bill to the full House floor.

Whether the bill gets called for a floor vote, however, remains to be seen. Cross and Madigan need a minimum of 60 votes to get it out of the House. And while Cross said he has 30 votes from his Republican members, Madigan has not committed to finding votes among his Democratic caucus, according to Cross. Madigan made one comment during Tuesday night’s two-hour hearing and left before it ended, slipping out a back door.

The bill is so touchy, lawmakers are receiving hundreds of e-mails and phone calls from union workers—particularly well-organized teachers—who oppose it.

State Rep. Karen May (D-Highland Park) voted for the bill during the committee roll call, but changed her vote to “no” after at the end of the roll call, realizing the bill had enough votes for passage. Voting in favor of the bill could mean the wrath of labor unions during next year’s elections.

Committee chairman Kevin McCarthy (D-Orland Park), along with state Reps. Elaine Nekritz (D-Des Plaines), Thomas Morrison (R-Palatine), Darlene Senger (R-Naperville) and David Winters (R-Rockford) voted “yes” on the bill.

State Reps. Raymond Poe (R-Springfield), who has a large share of state workers in his district, along with Daniel Biss (D-Skokie), Dan Burke (D-Chicago) and May—on second thought—voted against the bill.

Lawmakers are scheduled to adjourn from the fall session Thursday.