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updated: 4/24/2013 8:34 AM

Forum brings suburban community, experts together on state pension debate

Community, key players to talk about fixes

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  • An angry crowd reacted to talk on pensions during an Illinois Education Association forum in 2011 at Palatine's Cutting Hall. Tonight's forum will offer a variety of viewpoints on the pension crisis.

       An angry crowd reacted to talk on pensions during an Illinois Education Association forum in 2011 at Palatine's Cutting Hall. Tonight's forum will offer a variety of viewpoints on the pension crisis.
    Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

  • Elaine Nekritz

      Elaine Nekritz

  • Tom Morrison

      Tom Morrison

  • Cinda Klickna

      Cinda Klickna

  • Raises trigger penalties

    Graphic: Raises trigger penalties

  • How much districts paid

    Graphic: How much districts paid

 
 

The vast majority of people planning to attend a forum on public pensions today consider it an urgent priority for Illinois to address the pension funding crisis.

But how to fix that $100 billion dollar mess is far less clear.

Learning about the complicated issue from all sides is the point of tonight's panel, sponsored by the Daily Herald and the nonpartisan reform website Reboot Illinois, and featuring two legislative panelists with very different viewpoints as well as the president of the Illinois Education Association.

About 250 community members who responded to notices in the Daily Herald and on rebootillinois.com will attend the forum. Demand exceeded the number of seats available, but the 7 p.m. event will be streamed live at dailyherald.com and rebootillinois.com.

In a survey of attendees -- many of them retired teachers, firefighters and state employees -- just over 69 percent of the 119 respondents oppose changing retirement programs for public workers from defined benefits -- a pension -- to defined contributions, such as a 401(k) type of plan.

Twenty-six percent agree with such a shift, and 5 percent had no opinion.

Respondents were also largely against setting 67 as the age at which public employees could collect pension benefits. Fifty-five percent disagreed with that proposal, and 30 percent agreed with it. The remaining 15 percent had no opinion.

But a majority of respondents -- 55 percent -- said public employees should be expected to contribute more toward their health care in retirement. Thirty-seven percent disagreed, and 8 percent had no opinion.

Some current and future pension recipients are against any reduction to benefits.

"It is absolutely unethical to reduce benefits to retirees after they made irrevocable retirement decisions," Steve Catlin, a retired college administrator from St. Charles, wrote.

Others suggest that changes must be made.

"I did not realize while teaching for 30 years that my pension would be so much above the median pension for private workers. I did not realize that the bump up in my pay from District 54 was so unfunded. I'm willing to consider options," wrote one retired teacher from Schaumburg.

Panelists for tonight's forum are state Rep. Elaine Nekritz, a Northbrook Democrat; state Rep. Tom Morrison, a Palatine Republican; and IEA President Cinda Klickna. All are closely involved as solutions are debated across the state.

The panel will be moderated by Reboot Illinois Chief Operating Officer Madeleine Doubek and Daily Herald Political Editor Kerry Lester. Opinion Page Editor Jim Slusher also will participate.

It comes as Illinois lawmakers approach the final weeks before the end of the legislative session, set for May 31. Illinois' pension debt has topped the $100 billion mark. Local leaders have seen police and firefighter pension costs rise, too.

Lawmakers from across the state campaigned last year on finding a solution, but so far, the complex financial and political issue has evaded compromise.

"The public pension issue is one of the most important facing Illinois and as part of our obligation to the community," Daily Herald Editor John Lampinen said. "We hope through this forum to further the understanding of this subject and to constructively move the discussion forward."

Doubek called the state's pension debt "the most critical challenge that affects each one of us in Illinois." Reboot Illinois, she said, "is pleased to work with the Daily Herald and some of the key pension players to present this forum as a public service. We hope all who participate will find it adds to their understanding of the problem and the potential solutions."

The panelists have very different views of how pension costs should be cut, and tonight's panel is aimed at providing cordial discussion and information about a variety of options.

Nekritz has partnered with Republicans and members of her own party in the Illinois House to craft legislation that would cut teachers' and state workers' retirement benefits to save the state money. That represents one of the key points of gridlock on the issue.

Parts of her plan have cleared the Illinois House, but her legislation as a whole has been rejected by the Illinois Senate.

Klickna represents some of those who have the most at stake. The IEA is the state's largest teachers union and opposes Nekritz's plan.

Union leaders argue it's politicians -- not average teachers -- that have caused the state's massive budget problems, so public employees shouldn't be punished via benefit cuts.

They've promised a lawsuit over benefit cuts, citing the Illinois Constitution's provision that pension benefits can't be "diminished."

Klickna and others have proposed having their members pay 2 percent more of their salaries toward retirement and closing so-called business tax loopholes to help solve the problem.

Morrison has sponsored legislation backed by the conservative Illinois Policy Institute.

It would allow workers and retirees to keep the benefits they've already earned and move all new hires into 401(k)-style retirement systems.

Morrison's proposal faces steep opposition in an Illinois General Assembly controlled by Democrats. It's been aired at a committee hearing, but no votes were taken.

Morrison argues that Illinois' pension system is so broken that only a total overhaul will pull the state out of debt.

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