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updated: 7/3/2012 5:28 PM

Republicans: No pension free lunch

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SPRINGFIELD -- Illinois Senate Republicans are pointing to new numbers they say make the case that Chicago schools, which pay their own teacher pensions, get more in state funding than suburban and downstate districts get through the state's payment of their pensions.

As controversy has grown over proposals to transfer the state's pension obligations to local school districts, Senate Republican Leader Christine Radogno of Lemont has argued that if Democrats want to shift suburban teacher pension costs from the state to local districts, there has to be talk about school funding overall -- a controversial topic in Illinois politics.

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A preliminary look at the numbers from the GOP says that Chicago schools get about $900 million more than they would if money were dispersed equally statewide. For example, the Chicago district gets about 47 percent of the state's school poverty grants despite having about 33 percent of the Illinois students that qualify.

That $900 million benefit, Republicans say, is more than the $636 million in future pension costs the state will pay for downstate and suburban schools next year.

Radogno is pushing back against Democratic arguments that suburban schools -- not the state -- should pay their teachers' pension costs because Chicago schools already pay theirs. House Speaker Michael Madigan has called it a "free lunch."

"In fact, the opposite is true." said Radogno spokeswoman Patty Schuh.

Schuh said there could be a good reason for the disparity, but it's something that has to be examined in the debate over shifting pension costs.

The school funding debate has put off the effort to cut into the state's $83 billion in pension debt for another month or so.

A spokesman for Democratic Senate President John Cullerton said more data like the examples provided by the GOP can only help the sides come to an agreement. Cullerton has pushed for lawmakers to cut pension benefits for themselves and state employees, leaving the more controversial teachers for later.

But the idea to shift pension costs locally is one Cullerton has talked about for more than a year.

"What can't be debated here is the issue of local responsibility." said Cullerton spokesman Ron Holmes.

Republicans say pension benefits should be cut without shifting costs at all, but as Madigan and others stick to wanting the move, action has stalled.

"That's what's holding up pension reform," Schuh said.

A next meeting among top lawmakers and Gov. Pat Quinn hasn't been scheduled, as the summer campaign season continues to heat up.

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