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Article posted: 3/4/2013 8:49 PM

More pension proposals create less consensus

By Mike Riopell

SPRINGFIELD -- In the year since Gov. Pat Quinn declared it was time for a "rendezvous with reality" on issues like the state's rising pension costs, suburban lawmakers have offered some of the leading plans to tackle the problem.

Suburban faces of both parties are behind almost every major proposal, and the plans vary widely, from cutting benefits deeply to extending the 2011 temporary income tax increase, from taking away pensions for future workers altogether to one proposal endorsed by union leaders.

On one hand, the varied ideas provide lawmakers with a lot to think about -- a complex buffet of options with which to approach the state's nearly $100 billion pension debt.

On the other, as each new plan is hatched, consensus could be harder to find. Cutting pension benefits for teachers and state workers is a tough vote for lawmakers -- one many don't want to have to take more than once.

So until there's strength in numbers behind one plan, the debate could remain muddled.

As Quinn is set to give lawmakers his budget proposal Wednesday, he's already backed one plan.

But when certain pension-cutting ideas were rejected handily in test votes last week, it could be a sign that compromise is not on the horizon.

It can be tough to keep track of who has proposed what, especially because minds change all the time. But here's a snapshot of major proposals for pension reform.

Rep. Elaine Nekritz, Northbrook Democrat; Rep. Tom Cross, House Republican leader of Oswego; Sen. Daniel Biss, Evanston Democrat; Rep. Darlene Senger, Naperville Republican

The basics: Cuts pension benefits for public employees in several ways and asks them to pay more toward retirement. All new teachers and university workers would have both a pension-style retirement plan and a 401k-style one. Local school districts would start helping pay toward 401k-style accounts.

Who's behind it: It has some of the most public backing from lawmakers so far, but not enough to be approved. Supporters' differences of opinion with Senate President John Cullerton are one factor that could be stalling it.

Challenges: Union leaders will sue. Cullerton doesn't think the proposal would survive a court challenge because the Illinois Constitution forbids "diminishing" benefits.

Senate President John Cullerton

The basics: Cullerton's legislation would combine the Nekritz plan with his own ideas, allowing courts to pick his if they rule the other unconstitutional. Cullerton would give retirees an option: Pick less-generous pension benefits and get state-subsidized health care. Or keep current pension benefits and lose health care help. He argues this plan satisfies the state Constitution.

Who's behind it: Cullerton and Quinn, two of the state's most powerful Democrats.

Challenges: Critics say that because Cullerton gives every retiree a choice, it's impossible to know how much money it would save. And, they argue, no plan is a constitutional sure thing.

Sens. Linda Holmes, Aurora Democrat Pamela Althoff, McHenry Republican

The basics: Union members would pay more toward their retirements and, like in some other plans, the state would be required to make its full payment toward the pension funds each year.

Who's behind it: It's the only proposal that's been backed by union leaders, a big factor in a blue state like Illinois. And like the Nekritz plan, it has a large following of rank-and-file members. Union leaders argue their members didn't get the state into their financial problems, so their benefits shouldn't be cut to get it out.

Challenges: Critics don't think the proposal would save enough money to attack nearly $100 billion in debt.

State Rep. Lou Lang, Skokie Democrat

The basics: Unlike other plans, Lang's would take a pass on cutting retirees' yearly cost-of-living increase but raise the retirement age. Most controversially, he'd extend the state's temporary income tax hike -- now due to expire in 2015 -- and dedicate the money from it to pay the state's pension costs.

Who's behind it: The Skokie Democrat doesn't have much public support but counts state Rep. Greg Harris, a Chicago Democrat, as a co-sponsor to his legislation.

Challenges: Extending the tax increase is politically toxic, and many of his House colleagues have backed the Nekritz plan.

State Rep. Tom Morrison, Palatine Republican

The basics: Workers and retirees keep the benefits they've earned, but starting when the proposal would become law, everyone would enter a 401k-style system for all new benefits. Supporters say it would save the most money most immediately.

Who's behind it: The Illinois Policy Institute, a conservative think thank, formulated it.

Challenges: In a state controlled by Democrats, eliminating pensions going forward for public workers might be a nonstarter.

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