SPRINGFIELD -- Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan said Tuesday that fixes to the state's troubled retirement system should be done before lawmakers try to finalize the state's annual budget this month, not put off until after November's election.
"It shouldn't be," the Chicago Democrat told the Daily Herald.
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The powerful longtime speaker said the state's rising costs to pay for pensions of teachers, state workers and others leaves too little money for paying for other things such as health care for the poor.
"Any money sent to pension systems is money not available to Medicaid programs, for education," Madigan said. "That's how I've explained it to the unions that are across the table from me."
The politically volatile question of how to cope with rising pension costs has consumed lawmakers from both parties this year, and as they approach their May 31 budget deadline, the issue stands to see even more debate.
Lawmakers, many of whom are mounting re-election campaigns this year, face pressure from all sides to either cut teachers' and workers' pension benefits because the state faces a massive deficit, or to leave pensions alone because the deficit is politicians' fault in the first place.
Madigan's position that reform shouldn't be put off lines up with many Republicans.
"With every passing month and year, our liability grows," said Sara Wojcicki Jimenez, a spokeswoman for House Republican Leader Tom Cross.
Gov. Pat Quinn last month unveiled a proposal that includes having teachers pay more out of their salaries toward their own pensions, raising the retirement age to 67 from 55, and making local school districts and community colleges pay more toward their teachers' pensions.
That last point has almost universally drawn the ire of suburban school officials, who accuse Quinn and legislators of passing the buck on the state's financial problems.
But Madigan reiterated Tuesday that he thinks the idea makes sense.
Madigan noted that almost 80 percent of the state's yearly pension payment goes to employees, mostly teachers, whose salaries aren't set by the state. Madigan and the Democrats, in particular, say the state should not have to pay pension amounts based on salaries over which they have no control.
"They never get a paycheck from the state of Illinois," Madigan said.