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posted: 8/27/2012 5:04 AM

Voters grilling candidates about pension fix

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  • Republican Sidney Mathias opposes Democrat Carol Sente in the 59th state House District race.

      Republican Sidney Mathias opposes Democrat Carol Sente in the 59th state House District race.

  • Republican Jonathan Greenberg opposes Democrat Elaine Nekritz in the 57th state House District race.

      Republican Jonathan Greenberg opposes Democrat Elaine Nekritz in the 57th state House District race.

 
Associated Press

SPRINGFIELD -- Voters may not follow all the details of the state's huge pension problem, but they know a train wreck when they see one.

Legislative candidates from a sampling of four races around Illinois say voters are pressing them for answers about state government's failure to take control of fast-rising pension costs.

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Some see it as the latest in a long line of disappointments by state leaders, the candidates say, while others lump it in with worries about jobs and the economy. Teachers and other public employees worry their retirement plans will be upended by sudden pension cuts.

"It's a very hot topic down here. They want to know what's going to happen. They're fearful," said Mark Minor, a Republican running against Sen. Gary Forby, a Benton Democrat in a far southern Illinois district with plenty of teachers, prison guards, university employees and other government workers.

At the other end of the state, in Chicago's northern suburbs, Rep. Carol Sente said pensions are among the top five issues that voters bring up when she goes door to door. Sente, a Vernon Hills Democrat, said people on all sides of the issue seem most concerned about electing someone who won't simply duck the issue or blame others.

She accuses her opponent of not taking a firm stand on pensions, an opinion her campaign will share with voters.

"I imagine it will come up in debates. It will come up in our communications," Sente said. "It should. It bothers voters."

Virtually everyone at the state Capitol agrees pensions are an enormous problem. For decades, the state has failed to put enough money into the retirement systems for public employees. Combined with national economic problems, that has created a huge gap between the money available to those retirement systems and what they'll eventually have to pay out in pensions.

That shortfall of roughly $85 billion is the worst of any state in the country. It costs the state billions of dollars each year to chip away at that total, leaving less and less money for other needs.

Despite union opposition, Gov. Pat Quinn and legislative leaders want to reduce the annual cost by cutting retirement benefits. Instead of getting a 3 percent cost-of-living increase, compounded annually, retirees would be limited to 3 percent of half the rate of inflation, whichever is lower, and the increases would not be compounded.

But action has been sidelined by a dispute over whether school districts should share the cost of providing pensions for their employees. Democratic leaders want to shift some of the state's expenses to schools, while Republicans and some rank-and-file Democrats reject the idea.

Quinn ordered legislators to Springfield on Aug. 17 for a special session, but it produced nothing but finger-pointing.

Several candidates said they haven't gotten any instruction from party leaders on what to say about the situation. Still, even without any coordination, incumbents can expect awkward questions about their role in the stalemate.

Jonathan Greenberg, a Republican candidate for the Illinois House, said his opponent, Rep. Elaine Nekritz, helped the Democratic majority make the pension problem worse with "bad decision after bad decision."

Nekritz, a Northbrook Democrat and head of the House pensions committee, said she responds to that kind of criticism by stressing her individual dedication to working out a solution. She's not going to speak on behalf of the whole Statehouse process.

"I don't anticipate defending Springfield. Springfield isn't running in my district. I am," she said.

Of course, challengers can face some difficult questions, too. Complaining about inaction at the Statehouse invites people to ask what the challenger would do differently.

Greenberg, for instance, said he would be extremely reluctant to cut benefits for current retirees or anyone retiring from a public-sector job in the near future. But that's the heart of the current proposal, so it's not clear what Greenberg would support that actually reduces the state's pension obligations.

Candidates often resort to vague calls for frank discussions or negotiations where everything is on the table.

"There has to be a better conversation about what can be done over time," said Andy Manar, a Democratic candidate for Senate in the Springfield area.

"I think the parties have to be put in a room and not let out until they come up with a solution," said Sente's opponent, Rep. Sidney Mathias, a Buffalo Grove Republican.

"Why can't we put four or five or six options on the table and let (retirees) choose?" asked Minor, the Senate candidate from southern Illinois.

Most of the candidates are crystal clear about their feelings on the proposal to shift some pension costs to schools: They oppose it. With critics saying a shift would force schools to cut programs or raise property taxes, few candidates facing tough races are willing to embrace the idea -- not even Democrats, whose party leaders support it.

While the candidates say voters are worried about pensions, they also say it's not clear whether the issue will become the kind of flash point that can change votes. Potentially, it could turn out to be a top priority only for people whose pensions will be directly affected, while other voters just add it to the pile of reasons they're frustrated with state government.

Unions representing public employees have reason to focus on the issue, but it's not clear what their political options are.

Do they withhold money and support from incumbents who have shown a willingness to cut pension benefits? That could lead to victories by candidates who are even less friendly to unions. Do they give extra support to candidates who have consistently sided with unions? That might limit their chances of bringing other candidates to the union side.

Bill Looby, political director for the Illinois AFL-CIO, would say little about how the organization's member unions plan to answer such questions. He did say pensions won't necessarily be the deciding factor in unions' political decisions.

"It is a big issue, but it is one of several," Looby said.

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