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updated: 5/30/2013 10:44 PM

State Senate rejects sweeping public pension cuts

Illinois Senate rejects sweeping cuts

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  • Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn, front, shakes hands with Illinois Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago, right, while Illinois Speaker of the House Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, left, looks on. The top Democrats are so far at an impasse over pension legislation.

      Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn, front, shakes hands with Illinois Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago, right, while Illinois Speaker of the House Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, left, looks on. The top Democrats are so far at an impasse over pension legislation.
    Associated press/February 2013

 
 

SPRINGFIELD -- The Illinois Senate rejected a sweeping package of public employee pension cuts Thursday, possibly leaving lawmakers without a path forward on the state's biggest financial pressure and almost no time to find one.

Top Senate Democrats bashed the pension-cutting plan as unfair and illegal, saying the state has promised teachers and state workers a secure retirement in the Illinois Constitution.

"That is not the way we are supposed to treat people who have been good to us," state Sen. Linda Holmes, an Aurora Democrat, said in a fiery floor speech.

It was defeated by a 16-42 vote despite some Republican support.

"It is showtime right now," said Senate Republican Leader Christine Radogno of Lemont.

A majority disagreed.

The plan got about half the votes it needed. A similar proposal earlier this year won 23 votes in the Senate, so supporters appear to be losing ground.

Suburban Republicans largely supported the proposal and most suburban Democrats opposed it. Democrats have said lawmakers shouldn't cut the benefits of retirees who don't have other sources of income.

Lawmakers are scheduled to adjourn their annual session Friday.

If they can't approve a plan to deal with the state's escalating annual retirement payments and $100 billion in pension debt by midnight, lawmakers who campaigned last year by saying those financial troubles were their focus will have to explain to voters why nothing happened.

The plan rejected Thursday would have raised the retirement age, reduced retirees' annual pension increases and made workers pay more toward their own retirements, among other things. It has faced stiff union opposition.

The plan had been approved by the Illinois House, and the Senate has approved a competing union-backed plan that leading House Democrats oppose, possibly leading lawmakers to another summer of pension gridlock.

Lawmakers have a few ways to go forward in their final scheduled day, but all the options have pitfalls. Senate President John Cullerton could push a handful of proposals approved by the Illinois House months ago -- proposals that were at the time intended as test votes.

House Speaker Michael Madigan hasn't shown interest in having a vote on Cullerton's union-backed proposal. And the plan rejected Thursday could be called for a vote again, but changing 14 senators' minds in a dozen hours is a tall order.

Without a plan in place by the end of the day, Gov. Pat Quinn could force lawmakers to meet over the summer to keep working on the issue, but that idea comes with complications, too.

"The people of Illinois were let down tonight," Quinn said.

In the meantime, the Illinois House approved a hotly controversial proposal that would have the state pass on some of its teacher pension costs to universities and community colleges.

Under the proposal, which now heads to the Illinois Senate, public universities and community colleges would have to begin picking up the employers' share of pension contributions starting in 2014. They would start by picking up a portion of the costs, which now are paid by the state, and increasing that by a half percent per year until they assumed the full cost of retirement going forward.

State Rep. Elaine Nekritz, a Northbrook Democrat and the proposal's sponsor, said the community colleges and universities are on board with the plan.

"They agree that this is a very gradual shift that allows them to absorb these increased costs at a rate at which they can," she said.

But without big benefit cuts that would make that shift more palatable, the plan could die today, too.

Suburban lawmakers and school officials have fought the plan for a year, saying local taxpayers and tuition-payers shouldn't have to pay for the state's financial mismanagement.

"Only in Illinois could we take a victory lap and celebrate savings to the state while sticking it to the families and the students that go to our universities," said state Rep. Dennis Reboletti, an Elmhurst Republican.

Suburban public schools are excluded from lawmakers' new plan -- perhaps an acknowledgment that not enough lawmakers supported a controversial earlier proposal to move the state's teacher pension costs onto local school districts.

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