Pihos, Breen disagree on pension reform
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Longtime 48th state House Rep. Sandra Pihos is standing by her decision to vote against a bill in December that made cuts to public pensions.
"I think all of us made time to read a 325-page bill. But that bill was not vetted. There was no way that you could vet that bill," said Pihos, of Glen Ellyn, in a recent interview with the Daily Herald.
"Many of our Republicans asked on the House floor whether we could have (the Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability) weigh in and they were not given that opportunity," she said. "We were told outside entities were brought in to evaluate the particular savings in that bill."
But Lombard village board member Peter Breen, who is challenging Pihos in the March 18 Republican primary, said the bill was a constitutional "compromise measure" that was a good first step in pension reform.
"I would have voted in favor of it," he said. "I would have supported my leader on that front."
Breen said Pihos' vote reflects a problem with the Republicans in Springfield because they didn't follow the "good faith measure" put in front of them by the GOP House leader.
"I'm going to try to move the ball forward with compromise measures like that and where we can get a compromise let's take it and then continue to build for the future," he said.
Pihos, a former teacher, school board member and small business owner, is serving her sixth term. Breen works as the vice president and senior counsel for the Thomas More Society, which defends First Amendment rights.
Both are vying for the 48th District seat, which covers all or parts of Glen Ellyn, Wheaton, Lombard, Villa Park, Oakbrook Terrace and Downers Grove. The winner will advance to the November general election.
Pihos continued to defend her vote to by saying even "the most conservative of Republicans" didn't agree with the measure for numerous reasons. She said she voted "yes" on small parts of other pension bills in the past year.
"But there's grave concern when you have an issue like this, moving forward, and it doesn't get the job done. I think we need to take that into consideration," she said.
Pihos said she is capable of making the "hard vote," noting a time when she rejected a proposed teachers contract during a strike while serving on the Glenbard High School District 87 school board. The contract still passed, but she said several years later some teachers had to be let go because other board members didn't make a "prudent fiscal decision."
Breen argued, however, that Pihos' commitment to solid pension reform is questionable because she has accepted a $25,000 check from teachers unions for her campaign.
"Those teacher unions have been the primary opponent of pension reform in this state," he said. "They have been the primary obstacle that has kept us from getting even more serious and sustainable pension reform. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to think that there is a cause and effect there."
But Pihos said she is proud to be supported by the teachers unions.
"I am a teacher by profession," she said. "I have no money in the teachers pension system, so I have nothing to gain or lose by that. But beyond that, I think education is one of the most important things that we do in our state."
Breen said one pension reform option he thinks legislators should seriously consider is the introduction of a 401(K) option to active public employees.
"When you're looking at a system where the average teacher today retires with roughly a $70,000-a-year pension, which is about the average household income in Lombard ... the people of the state are going to say, why is a 401(K) wrong for public sector employees?" he said.
Pihos said the 401(K) option is logical, but she believes it would likely face a lot of pushback. She said it's hard to say which elements she thinks belong in a pension reform package until a court ruling comes through on the December bill.
"I don't think we're done with pension reform. I think it will come back, it will circle back to us again, certainly," she said. "The unfortunate part is if they rule against this particular bill, we'll be even further behind because we would have spent a lot of time not addressing it."
Both candidates agreed that shifting the pension burden to local taxing bodies is not feasible, considering the state already has some of the highest property tax rates in the country.
"Folks are getting taxed out of their houses as it is right now, so you can't do anything to increase property taxes on local constituents at this time," Breen said. "The idea, though, of ensuring that you don't have the end of career salary spike ... that's the sort of way that you should attack the problem."
Pihos agreed that she doesn't "particularly" support a cost shift because it will increase property taxes on residents who can't afford it, or money will be diverted from classrooms.
However, if it did have to occur, she said the state should prepare school districts for the shift and make sure the measure is not retroactive.
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