SPRINGFIELD — The Illinois House today approved Speaker Michael Madigan’s plan to cut public workers’ pension benefits, sending it to the Senate where a similar plan has been rejected before.
The move makes more clear than ever that suburban teachers’ and state workers’ retirement future hinges on a conflict between two of the state’s most powerful Democrats.
Senate President John Cullerton has blasted Madigan’s approach as unconstitutional and is working with union leaders on a different proposal. Gov. Pat Quinn in the past months has praised both plans, pleading with lawmakers to do something.
With today’s vote, though, Madigan’s plan has momentum that any controversial legislation needs to survive in Springfield. It would raise the retirement age for public workers age 45 and younger and cut retirees’ annual benefit raises, among other things.
“The right thing is not always the easy thing to do,” said state Rep. Elaine Nekritz, a Northbrook Democrat.
The plan also would try to guarantee the state pays its share into the state’s pension accounts. Shorting those payments in recent years has been a major factor in creating the state’s $100 billion in debt and escalating annual payments.
The more money Illinois pays toward pension costs, the less it has for other things.
Lawmakers approved the move by a 62-51 vote.
The plan has been sculpted in recent months largely by a bipartisan group of suburban lawmakers, including state Reps. Nekritz and Darlene Senger of Naperville, as well as House Republican Leader Tom Cross and state Sen. Daniel Biss of Evanston.
Madigan calmly fielded questions on the House floor from lawmakers who both praised the legislation and thought it fell short.
“Could there be modifications? The answer is yes.” Madigan said. “But I wouldn’t recommend that.”
Union leaders have decried the plan, saying they’ll challenge the legislation in court as soon as the ink on Quinn’s signature dries — that is, if the legislation ever makes it to his desk.
Cullerton’s disapproval carries a lot of weight in the Senate, and a handful of suburban Democrats have expressed serious concerns over any plan that would hurt people who have already retired.