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updated: 11/27/2013 5:55 PM

Deal on cutting pension benefits now needs votes

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  • Illinois legislative leaders reached agreement on a pension-cutting bill Wednesday and now have to try to sell it to the rank and file. A vote on the controversial measure could come Tuesday.

      Illinois legislative leaders reached agreement on a pension-cutting bill Wednesday and now have to try to sell it to the rank and file. A vote on the controversial measure could come Tuesday.
    Associated Press file photo

  • Melinda Bush

      Melinda Bush

  • Dan Kotowski

      Dan Kotowski

 
 

A bipartisan agreement among top state lawmakers to cut teachers' and state workers' pension benefits now has to be sold in a hurry to rank-and-file members ahead of a potential vote Tuesday.

Suburban Senate Democrats in particular, who have expressed reservations about cutting retirees' benefits, will have to be wooed as union leaders push back hard against the cuts. Meanwhile, some lawmakers may want more cuts than those included in an agreement reached Wednesday.

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A spokesman for Senate President John Cullerton, a Chicago Democrat, said Cullerton will be making calls to his members the day after Thanksgiving to try to round up support and explain the proposal, the details of which haven't yet been made public.

That means lawmakers won't have a lot of time to digest the politically and legally complex legislation before being asked to vote on it Tuesday.

"I still frankly don't know what the bill is I'm going to be looking at," state Sen. Melinda Bush, a Grayslake Democrat, said in the hours before the deal was struck.

The short timetable could frustrate some of them and chill support.

Or a Tuesday vote could create a take-it-or-leave-it scenario for lawmakers who have said on the campaign trail and elsewhere they'd back pension reforms. That both parties' leaders are behind the plan could grease the path to approval after years of arguing about what has been called the nation's worst pension crisis.

The pension proposal, among other things, could reduce workers' and retirees' 3 percent annual increase in pension benefits to varying degrees, depending on how long they worked. The idea is cuts would have the least impact on workers who were paid the least and worked the longest.

Previous frameworks have raised the retirement age for most workers, lowered how much they have to contribute toward their own retirements and offered a voluntary 401k-style retirement option. The latest plan will include similar provisions.

In addition, the state would use some of the money it saves every year to pay down its $100 billion in retirement debt faster.

The proposal has incensed union leaders, who argue benefits won't keep up with inflation, greatly reducing the value of state pensions over time.

Plus, they'll prepare to immediately sue if lawmakers approve, pointing to the Illinois Constitution's plain language that pension benefits can't be "diminished or impaired."

"You can bet we'll be in court," said Illinois Federation of Teachers President Dan Montgomery.

State Sen. Dan Kotowski, a Park Ridge Democrat, said before news of a deal emerged he was optimistic about the direction of talks. He said he might be able to support the balance struck between cutting benefits and making a dent in the state's financial troubles.

"The sooner a resolution is arrived at the better," Kotowski said.

Supporters won't need all Democrats on board if most Republicans favor it, too. The agreed-to way of cutting annual benefit increases for retirees was Senate Republican Leader Christine Radogno's idea.

Previously, Republicans had emphasized finding a plan that saved a significant amount of money.

Some Republicans, though, like state Rep. Tom Morrison of Palatine have argued the state's pension debt is so massive that moving workers to 401k-style plans is the best move.

Wednesday's deal marks the first time leaders of both parties in both the House and Senate have agreed on a way to address the state's pension debt.

But fits and starts in the debate during last spring's legislative session show that no deal is done until rank-and-file members vote for it.

Bush said she's still concerned about cuts to current retirees' benefits and voted "present" on pension legislation for the Chicago Park District in recent weeks because she didn't get enough advance notice about what it did.

"Until I do, I can't say whether I'm going to be a yes or no vote," Bush said.

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