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updated: 11/21/2013 7:10 PM

Unions plan 'emergency days' to lobby lawmakers

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Associated Press

SPRINGFIELD -- As legislative leaders met Thursday to develop a plan to deal with Illinois' $100 billion pension crisis, the state's biggest public employee unions were planning a concerted lobbying push to oppose it.

The "We are One Coalition," which represents the state's major public employee unions, alerted members this week about "emergency call-in days" next week and on Dec. 2-3.

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Members were being asked to call lawmakers and urge them to vote against pension bills that don't have union support.

The coalition also said that members plan to visit the offices of "persuadable" lawmakers across the state for "a vigorous grassroots lobbying effort" with as many union members and retirees in attendance as possible.

Legislative leaders spoke via conference call Thursday to firm up a plan that could save close to $150 billion over 30 years. They said they had made progress and plan to meet at least once more before a possible special legislative session that would likely start Dec. 3.

"Points of agreement have progressed to the stage that we are consulting our caucus," said Rikeesha Phelon, the spokeswoman for Democratic Senate President John Cullerton.

The legislative leaders' work builds off a framework developed by a bipartisan pension committee that would have saved $138 billion over 30 years.

Among other things, that plan would have replaced the current 3 percent annual compounded cost-of-living increase that retirees receive with one that is equal to half the inflation rate, with a minimum increase of 1 percent and maximum of 4 percent. The U.S. inflation rate stood at 1 percent last month, according to the Federal Reserve.

The plan also would have reduced employee contributions by 1 percent -- a concession to state employees for other sacrifices that proponents say would allow it to better withstand a certain constitutional challenge.

Cost-cutting elements that will affect the overall savings number are being negotiated, including the structuring of the cost-of-living increase, Phelon said.

Patti Schuh, the spokeswoman for House Republican Leader Christine Radogno, described Thursday's meeting as "continued productive discussions," but cautioned that "these are difficult and complicated issues we don't just gloss over."

The unions adamantly oppose the unfinished deal. They say they weren't consulted about the plan and that they think elements of it are unconstitutional. Illinois pension problem, deemed the nation's worst, comes from years of lawmakers shorting or skipping required payments to its pension systems.

"With the leaders behind this scheme, it will take everything we've got to stop it," the coalition tells union members in its email, which was provided to The Associated Press. "It's also likely that leaders will unveil their scheme quickly and try to jam it through the House and Senate without enough time for open hearings or public review."

A top aide to Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan told Illinois lawmakers last week to be ready for a special session in Springfield beginning Dec. 3. Chief of Staff Tim Mapes also asked them to "keep other days that week available." Alerts to other caucuses followed.

But Madigan spokesman Steve Brown said Thursday that a special session wasn't definite. "We just want to make people aware so they could ask to return and plan accordingly," he said.

Charlie McBarron of the Illinois Education Association told the AP that lawmakers "will be hearing from us very strongly between now and when they convene and well after that. Our members are highly focused on this."

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