Editorial: A public pension approach with some promise
Notice anything unexpected about these suburban names among the supporters of pension legislation crafted by the state's most powerful Democrat? Tom Cross, Jim Durkin, David Harris, Jeanne Ives, David McSweeney, JoAnn Osmond, Ed Sullivan, Barbara Wheeler ...
Yes, they're all Republicans. Some, very conservative Republicans. One, Cross, the leader of the party in the House. They were among 14 suburban GOP state representatives who joined 11 suburban Democrats in supporting Speaker Michael Madigan's pension proposal that the Illinois House approved last week.
This is not to suggest that the legislation was bipartisan in the traditional sense. It was written, after all, by the Democratic speaker, based largely on ideas contained in proposals touted by Democratic state Rep. Elaine Nekritz and Sen. Daniel Biss. And statewide, only 22 of the 47 House Republicans supported it. Among opponents, five of seven suburban lawmakers were Republicans.
But the presence of so many Republican names — and prominent Republican names — on the "aye" side of the Madigan-revised SB1 says something important about the legislation. Its support is not steeped in ideology; it can pass; diverse leaders think it is fair; and, perhaps most important, diverse leaders think it will work.
On that latter point, time, of course, is the ultimate determinant. But the prospect is extremely compelling, for the legislation addresses nearly every factor contributing to the current crisis. It places a generous nearly $110,000 cap on annual pension pay. It blunts the effect of the compounded 3 percent cost-of-living adjustment while protecting the raise for retirees at the low end of the pay scale. It minimizes the effect on current retirees. It provides assurances the state will not again forgo its pension responsibilities — one of the primary causes of the crisis. It drives for full funding of the pension system, and, importantly, assures reduction of the $90 billion-plus unfunded debt by $30 billion.
Opposition to the House bill falls along three disparate lines of reasoning: The bill permanently secures the defined benefit (pension) system. It cuts too much from teachers and state employees. Or, it simply can't pass muster with the state constitution.
These are not insignificant points. But they are addressable: Entirely eliminating public pensions is not politically practical, so the law must guarantee that the state meet its obligations to support the system. Nearly everyone in the state is struggling these days, and, unfortunate as it is to affect benefits, it is not unreasonable to expect public employees to share in the solution to the problem. The only effective option that will unequivocally avoid the constitutionality question is a substantial tax increase, and that is neither fair nor politically viable.
The Madigan view of SB1 is far from a perfect solution. But it is a workable solution and a fair one. Suburban Republicans and Democrats alike recognize that. Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn recognizes it. Now, if members of both parties in the Senate can show similar insight, we may be getting somewhere.
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