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As Illinois House committee approves pensions plan, attention turns to Senate

An Illinois House committee approved a measure Wednesday that would change how the state pays for its severely underfunded pension systems. The committee voted 9-1.

The bill still needs a majority vote in the full House of Representatives. But House Speaker Michael Madigan said his plan takes concepts that have already been debated and approved, and combines them into one package. It proposes things like raising the retirement age for younger state employees and reducing pay increases for retirees.

Still, the bill could face a harder vote in the state Senate.

A similar measure fell seven votes short. State Sen. Dan Biss, who first proposed some of the same concepts Madigan is now backing, said he thinks he can flip seven senators to support this latest pension proposal.

“There’s lots of discussions,” Biss said. “This is a complicated issue and a very emotional issue and people have lots and lots of questions. And I think if this bill does come over from the House, we’re just going to have to spend a lot of time talking through those questions and concerns.”

Senate President John Cullerton has been critical of Madigan and Biss’s proposal over legal concerns. He 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, but the rival plan does not.

Labor unions have said they plan to sue if the legislature passes either plan. A coalition of labor groups say legislators should look at changing the tax structure, arguing cutting pension benefits is unconstitutional.

In a statement, a Cullerton spokesman said the Senate President is continuing to work on pensions and, “ideally that bill will be constitutional.”

Gov. Pat Quinn, meantime, has voiced his support for Cullerton’s plan. But in a statement released Wednesday, Quinn said, “I commend the nine members of the House Committee who today voted to address the biggest challenge facing our state.”

Illinois has the worst-funded pensions systems in the country. It also owes about $96 billion in pension debt.

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

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