Illinois pension road map getting clearer
By Benjamin Yount
SPRINGFIELD — A final pension reform law is a long way off, and roadblocks still exist, but Illinois’ path to controlling its $130 billion pension debt is becoming clearer.
The Illinois House today approved measures to cap the salary — $113,000 — on which a pension can be based, and to steadily raise the retirement age — to 67 for some public employees.
More important, according to state Rep. Elaine Nekritz, D-Northbrooke, lawmakers are finally showing their cards in regard to what they will and will not support.
“This process is highlighting and narrowing the kinds of things we can consider as part of a comprehensive package,” Nekritz said.
Illinois lawmakers have long talked about the need for pension reform, but until this spring rank and file legislators have taken few votes on the issue.
Nekritz said the approach “where leaders come together with a solution” and hand it off to lawmakers has produced nothing.
“It really is important that we try and do something different, and find out what members will support,” Nekritz said.
Lawmakers have supported limits on the amount public workers will earn with their pensions and generally support the idea that public employees will have to pay more for their retirement benefits.
But the Illinois House has voted down a plan that would freeze or eliminate cost-of-living adjustments for pensioners as well as proposals that would have had teachers, university workers, prison guards and state troopers pay 4 percent more toward their retirements.
Each plan has gotten its own vote over the past few weeks. Powerful Democratic House Speaker Mike Madigan has said he orchestrated the votes to “educate” lawmakers on the complexity of pension reform.
House Republican Leader Tom Cross has been critical of the process.
“This is legislating by multiple choice,” Cross declared on the House floor.
Cross’ Republican caucus boycotted many of the pension votes out of anger over “politics,” the GOP leader has said.
“Many of these people have never been pinned down on these issues before,” said University of Illinois at Springfield political science professor Chris Mooney. “That’s why you see so many votes.”
Mooney said lawmakers are being tested.
“If you won’t support a 3 percent pension increase, what about 2 percent? What about COLA’s?”
Nekritz said the goal is a “comprehensive package” on pension reform, and not a hodge-podge of ideas.
The comprehensive plan Nekritz and Cross — along with state Sen. Dan Biss, D-Evanston — are shepherding through the Capitol passed a statehouse committee Thursday. It could come before the House any day.
But while the House is acting on pension reform, the Illinois Senate is moving ahead with a number of different yet sweeping proposals.
A proposal from Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago, giving public employees a choice between higher pension contributions or lower benefit levels, passed a Senate panel Wednesday.
Cullerton insists the choice component of his plan is the only way Illinois can reform its five pension systems and not run afoul of constitutional protections.
John Cameron is legislative director for the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees. Any pension reform that lacks union blessings would be unconstitutional, he says.
“We believe that the best approach to get to constitutionality is by negotiating,.” Cameron said. “Taking another approach than imposing reductions.”
But lawmakers in both the House and the Senate do not appear willing to bargain over pension reform.
Mooney thinks pension reform will have to be hammered out — one piece and one vote at a time.
“Maybe the bargaining lawmakers did in the backroom for years is finally being done out in public.”
Contact Benjamin Yount at Ben@ILWatchdog.org