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updated: 3/20/2013 8:35 PM

Sweeping pension-cuts bill fails in state Senate; smaller teachers bill passes

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  • State Sen. John Cullerton

      State Sen. John Cullerton

 
 

SPRINGFIELD -- The Illinois Senate Wednesday approved a plan to cut working teachers' pensions while rejecting a more sweeping plan, sending mixed messages about where the debate over one of the state's biggest financial problems will go next.

A plan by state Sen. Daniel Biss to cut the pensions of public employees including teachers and lawmakers, which had appeared to gain bipartisan momentum in recent months, was instead soundly defeated 30-23.

Biss' plan would have cut annual cost-of-living pension increases, raised the retirement age and required local school districts to start paying into a 401(k)-style plan for teachers, among other things.

But whether it would pass muster under an Illinois Constitution that says benefits cannot be "diminished" was a key question in the debate.

As a result, a proposal from Senate President John Cullerton was approved by a 30-22 vote.

Cullerton's plan would affect only teachers and leaves other retirees alone. It would give teachers hired before 2011 a choice between a less generous yearly increase in their benefits, and keeping their current pension but giving up access to state-subsidized health care.

"It has the strongest argument to be constitutional," Cullerton said of his plan.

The limited scope, though, raised questions about whether his cuts would save enough money to be worth doing.

"This doesn't do enough for us to put the check in the box on pension reform," said state Sen. Matt Murphy, a Palatine Republican.

"No matter what we do, it's going to be painful to someone," said Senate Republican Leader Christine Radogno of Lemont.

Biss' plan could have saved the state nearly $2 billion a year in its ballooning retirement payments.

The mixed action in the Senate leaves lawmakers without a clear picture of what happens next.

Cullerton's proposal approved in the Senate has received almost no public vetting in the House, where Biss' plan perhaps enjoyed the most support among myriad proposals.

As the state's nearly $100 billion in pension debt continues to grow, the rising yearly payments limit how much money Illinois has to pay for schools, care for the disabled and many other programs.

Cullerton has drafted legislation that would cut benefits for other public employees, but it wasn't called for a vote after the teachers part nearly wasn't approved.

In fact, on a first vote, Senate Democrats were one vote shy. They tried again shortly after and got to the 30 votes they needed to send it to the Illinois House.

Some Democrats, including state Sen. Michael Noland of Elgin, voted "yes" for both bills.

"I will be voting for any meaningful measure on pension reform," Noland said.

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