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updated: 5/2/2013 6:48 PM

Illinois House sends pension package to Senate

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  • The Illinois House approved a major package of pension benefit cuts Thursday.

      The Illinois House approved a major package of pension benefit cuts Thursday.
    File photo

 
 

SPRINGFIELD -- When the Illinois House Thursday approved Speaker Michael Madigan's plan to cut teachers' and state workers' retirement benefits, it became more clear than ever their retirement future hinges on a conflict between two of the state's most powerful Democrats.

Senate President John Cullerton has blasted Madigan's approach as unconstitutional and is working with union leaders on a different proposal.

With Thursday's vote, though, Madigan's plan has the momentum that any controversial legislation needs to survive in Springfield.

The plan would raise the retirement age for public workers age 45 and younger and cut retirees' annual benefit raises, among other things.

"The state's fiscal problems are so bad that they require radical surgery," Madigan said. "And this is the first step."

The Illinois House approved the move with a 62-51 vote, with most suburban lawmakers voting for it.

"For us not to address this would be absolutely unthinkable, and it's a dereliction of our duty," said state Rep. Ron Sandack, a Downers Grove Republican, who voted "yes."

The plan also would try to guarantee the state pays its share into the state's pension accounts. Lawmakers and governors shorting those payments in recent years has been a major factor in creating the state's $100 billion in debt and escalating annual payments.

The more money Illinois pays toward pension costs, the less it has for other things.

The plan has been sculpted in recent months largely by a bipartisan group of suburban lawmakers, including Democratic state Rep. Elaine Nekritz of Northbrook, Republican Rep. Darlene Senger of Naperville, House Republican Leader Tom Cross of Oswego and state Sen. Daniel Biss of Evanston.

"The right thing is not always the easy thing to do," Nekritz said.

Union leaders have said cutting benefits is the wrong thing to do. They promise to challenge the legislation in court as soon as the ink on Gov. Pat Quinn's signature dries -- that is, if the legislation ever makes it to his desk.

They've aligned themselves with Cullerton in recent days.

"It is blatantly unconstitutional and thus saves nothing," reads a statement from the We Are One Illinois labor coalition. "It simply exacerbates Illinois' fiscal problems. In contrast, our coalition had a productive meeting today with President John Cullerton, and we hope to be able to continue the dialogue."

Cullerton's disapproval carries a lot of weight in the Senate, and a handful of suburban Democrats have expressed serious concerns over any plan that would hurt people who have already retired.

The constitutional question has permeated the debate for months, and it's what concerned some suburban lawmakers who voted "no" Thursday.

"Within an hour, there will be a lawsuit," said state Rep. Dennis Reboletti, an Elmhurst Republican. "We can't then use those savings to pay off other bills because we may have to be making pension payments for the next couple years."

Biss, who has clashed with Cullerton on the issue, downplayed the possible conflict with the House plan.

"I don't think it's useful to see this as one team versus the other," Biss said.

Earlier this year Quinn picked Cullerton's side in that debate. But lately, he's praised Madigan's.

"The sooner it's done the better," Quinn said. "It is imperative this month that we pass a bill through both houses that comes to me so I can sign it into law."

Though the House voted to send the plan to the Senate Thursday, nothing forces the legislation to come for a vote there soon, if ever. As lawmakers march toward their May 31 goal to finish a budget, the looming deadline pressure might be what forces compromise, tough decisions or inaction.

Madigan's plan does not include a provision that would have suburban schools pay millions of dollars more every year toward teachers' retirements. Many suburban lawmakers have decried the idea, complicating any attempts to move forward with benefit cuts.

Madigan says he'll try to move so-called "cost-shift" legislation "soon."

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