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Civic leaders urge Springfield: Don't forget about pensions

As Illinois’ lame duck legislature considers issues such as gay marriage and gun regulation this week, some Chicago civic groups are urging lawmakers not to forget about the state’s pension crisis.

The Illinois Senate began its January session Wednesday, and the House is set to return to work Sunday. But several civic leaders say they’re concerned no single plan to bolster Illinois’ five state pension systems has gained enough traction to pass.

“We’re saying this is job No. 1. That other issues — doesn’t matter if it’s casinos or anything — should not be dealt with before pensions,” said MarySue Barrett, president of the Metropolitan Planning Council, a non-profit regional planning group.

Much political and media attention over the holidays has swirled around legislation to legalize gay marriage in Illinois — a plan that could come up for a vote in the Senate over the next few days. Some state and local lawmakers have also pushed hard for a state-level assault weapons ban, following the grisly school shooting in Connecticut. Late Wednesday a committee moved that issue far enough that it could be considered by the full Senate.   

A comprehensive pension fix remains elusive, though, despite myriad proposals kicking around the state capital. Illinois state worker retirement systems are now underfunded by nearly $96 billion (according to the state), and some experts estimate the number could be even higher.

“We’re very afraid that the General Assembly’s not gonna act on pension reform,” said Laurence Msall, president of the Civic Federation, a non-profit budget watchdog.

Msall said he’s backing a plan proposed by a bi-partisan group of lawmakers that would have Illinois state pensions fully funded within 30 years. The proposal, championed by House Democrats Elaine Nekritz and Daniel Biss, would cap cost-of-living raises for retired workers, raise the retirement age for some workers and make local school districts contribute to their teachers’ pensions, instead of having the state pick up that tab.

But labor unions are promising to sue if such a plan passes, pointing to an Illinois constitutional provision that bars the state from taking away pension benefits it has already promised to workers.

But Illinois politicians should pass something now and worry about a court fight later, said Better Government Association President and CEO Andy Shaw.

“Let’s get something out there, implemented and in front of the courts, because until that happens, nothing will be able to go forward,” Shaw said. “So we need a first step.”

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