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updated: 3/22/2013 11:27 AM

Illinois House OK could be break in pension gridlock

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  • State Sen. Daniel Biss of Evanston, top left, House Republican Leader Tom Cross of Oswego, bottom, and state Rep. Elaine Nekritz of Northbrook, right, back a pension plan that won House approval this week.

      State Sen. Daniel Biss of Evanston, top left, House Republican Leader Tom Cross of Oswego, bottom, and state Rep. Elaine Nekritz of Northbrook, right, back a pension plan that won House approval this week.
    Associated Press File photo

  • State lawmakers start a two-week session break starting today, their last real time away from Springfield before the May 31 budget deadline.

      State lawmakers start a two-week session break starting today, their last real time away from Springfield before the May 31 budget deadline.
    Associated Press File photo

 
 

SPRINGFIELD -- Supporters of big public employee pension cuts approved by the Illinois House Thursday say they've gotten past the hardest vote on the long-festering issue.


As they've debated for more than a year, lawmakers had been waiting for an indicator showing how powerful House Speaker Michael Madigan would want to move forward.

He provided some direction Thursday just before the House voted 66-50 to limit the annual cost-of-living increases to teachers', state workers' and lawmakers' retirement benefits.

"I think we're in a position to finalize preparation of a bill and move a bill from the House to the Senate that treats all aspects of the problem," Madigan, a Chicago Democrat, said in a rare speech from the House floor.

Last week, the House voted to raise the retirement age and cap how much of a retiree's salary could count toward his or her pension.

Approving the most controversial parts of an eventual pension reform package could symbolize an easing of gridlock on the issue.

But other signs of compromise in the past haven't yielded legislation on Quinn's desk. Big challenges remain in trying to solve the state's nearly $100 billion in pension debt, one of its biggest financial problems.

Senate President John Cullerton has dug in against the kinds of cuts the House OK'd Thursday. In fact, the House made its move just one day after Senate lawmakers easily rejected a plan that included the cuts.

So the legislative volleyball between the Illinois House and Senate is likely to continue at least for now -- with each chamber sending the other competing proposals that aren't likely to be returned to the other side of the net until a greater compromise is reached.

In recent years, similar bickering over the state budget between Democrats in the House and Senate has tended to end with the House getting its way.

"We'll stay on our process, as we so often do in the House, and reconcile with the Senate later," said state Rep. Elaine Nekritz, a Northbrook Democrat.

While most observers agree cutting annual pension increases would save the state the most money, the move is also among the most controversial. The Illinois Constitution states pension benefits are not to be "diminished."

State Rep. Mike Fortner, a West Chicago Republican, was among those who raised legal questions in opposing the plan.

A coalition of labor unions alluded to constitutional issues in a response to Thursday's vote.

"Public workers and retirees did not cause this problem, but our coalition will continue to try to solve it through a fair, constitutional solution," read a statement from the We Are One Illinois coalition.

The House plan would delay a retiree from getting any cost-of-living increases for either five years after retirement or age 67, whichever comes first.

Then, after a pension reached $25,000, yearly increases would be a flat $750 per year, not the current compouding increase that adds up fast and has added billions to the state's pension debt.

Previous moves in the House would raise the retirement age by up to five years, depending on how old a worker is now. And House members also previously voted to limit how much of workers' salary can count toward calculating their pensions at $113,700.

The House has not yet addressed the controversial idea of having suburban schools pay for their own teachers' retirement costs. How that proposal eventually looks -- or if it exists at all -- could be a key to compromise on a final package of reforms.

"It's still available for discussion," Nekritz said. "I don't think that I've gotten an indication of how those things will be resolved, and the speaker is still obviously very interested in pursuing a cost shift."

In the meantime, a proposal from state Rep. Tom Morrison, a Palatine Republican, that would move most public employees into 401(k)-style retirement plans, was discussed in a House committee. No vote was taken.

Lawmakers are set to leave Friday for their last break from Springfield until their May 31 deadline, so the pensions question is likely to come up back home between them and their constituents.

The issue continues to leave lawmakers feeling torn between the financial pressures of growing retirement costs and a sense of unfairness that comes with cutting pension benefits for teachers who didn't cause Illinois' deep money troubles.

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