House could vote on partial pension fix next month – chicagotribune.com

28 Jul

After spending much of the summer deadlocked on how to reform the state’s vastly underfunded employee pension system, House lawmakers soon might vote on a plan that Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn says is a “good start” but far from the comprehensive solution that’s needed.

Under consideration is a measure that would impose cost-cutting changes on two of the state’s five retirement systems — the ones covering state workers and legislators.

Driving the scaled-back version of pension reform is Senate President John Cullerton, who narrowly won passage of the bill during the spring session. For Cullerton, getting even a smaller piece of a pension fix onto Quinn’s desk is crucial as credit agencies threaten a rating downgrade if nothing is done. That would make it more expensive for the state to borrow money to pay for things such as building new roads, schools and sewers.

The House left town at the end of May without voting on the plan, but Cullerton said he has received assurances from House Speaker Michael Madigan that his fellow Chicago Democrat will call the legislation for a vote when the House returns to Springfield next month.

House members will be back at the Capitol for a one-day session Aug. 17 to vote on whether to expel Democratic Rep. Derrick Smith over a federal bribery charge and might vote on Cullerton’s pension bill as well.

“It’s something that’s being discussed,” said Madigan spokesman Steve Brown.

Quinn initially supported the Cullerton proposal, then backed off in an effort to strike a deal on a broader overhaul that included shifting the cost of teacher pensions to local school districts outside of Chicago, where property taxpayers already foot the bill. That failed, and there’s been little movement since then. Republicans argue that shifting teacher retirement costs would result in property tax increases in the suburbs and Downstate.

House approval of the Senate measure would provide the governor something approaching a half-loaf on pension reform this summer, if not the sweeping solution he seeks.

Publicly, Quinn is attempting to keep the pressure on, saying widespread changes must happen or rising pension costs will continue to put the “squeeze” on other spending priorities, such as education and public safety.”

I think it’s a good start,” Quinn said recently of Cullerton’s bill. “You know I’d like to get to the finish line completely. I think anyone can understand the importance in Illinois of comprehensive pension reform. We have to do this. This is our calling. This is our moment. And I really would like to see legislators roll up their sleeves and get the job done sooner rather than later.”

It’s a refrain Quinn has been repeating for months with little success while politics continue to trump policy as the November election looms. By waiting to vote on comprehensive changes until after the election, Democrats who control the Legislature can avoid angering public employee unions they rely on for campaign help, but that inaction also leaves them susceptible to Republican attack ads on the issue.

Passing even partial reforms could provide Democrats with a measure of protection from such criticism. Still, there’s no guarantee there will be enough support. Cullerton acknowledged it will be a difficult vote for House lawmakers, noting that “you don’t politically insulate yourself when you vote against the unions.”

Under the proposal, lawmakers and other state employees would be required to accept cost-of-living increases below the current 3 percent compounded level if they want to keep access to their state health insurance and have salary increases totaled into their final pension earnings. Cullerton estimates the changes could save the state as much as $31 billion over the next 30 years.

The measure does not affect judges or teachers and university workers. Some reform advocates fear that lawmakers will pass the measure, claim victory and abandon the push for further changes. But Cullerton said that’s not the case, arguing that legislators aren’t going to cut their own benefits and then “let teachers off the hook.”

Cullerton said it simply will take more time to draft a plan for reforming teacher pensions, but that shouldn’t stop other changes from being put in place.

“We have more work to do. I am very confident we can get it done, but it will take more time,” Cullerton said. “This (measure) doesn’t involve some of those complicated issues, and there is no reason in the world not to support it.”

via House could vote on partial pension fix next month – chicagotribune.com.

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