Madigan backs having local schools bear more pension costs

SPRINGFIELD — House Speaker Michael Madigan expressed at least some support for the idea of transferring the state's share of paying for teachers' pensions onto local school districts, a concept suburban school officials strongly oppose.

Following a House committee hearing Tuesday in Springfield, Madigan emphasized for reporters that a majority of people who get state pensions never work for the state directly. Instead, they work for public schools, universities and community colleges.

“They never got a paycheck from the state of Illinois, so there has to be a sharing of the cost,” Madigan said.

How a transfer of the costs would work remains unclear, but local schools worry about the expense as they already cope with tight budgets and funding cuts from the state.

Plus, some critics argue shifting costs to the suburbs wouldn't affect how high the actual costs are — factors that could be addressed by other proposed changes to the state's pension systems.

“It's the same amount of money that needs to be paid,” said Susan Hilton, director of government affairs for the Illinois Association of School Boards, which opposes transferring the costs to local schools. “It's just who's going to pay it.”

Hilton said her group, based in Lombard, estimates paying the employers' share for teachers would cost a school district about 7.6 of its pension-eligible payroll — a number that will vary widely among districts.

Gov. Pat Quinn is expected to release a proposal this week to try to reduce the state's escalating pension costs. Quinn has spoken publicly in favor of the proposal to shift costs to local schools, and Senate President John Cullerton has pushed it for more than a year, perhaps uniting the state's top three Democrats behind it.

Still, it could be a tough sell to lawmakers in Springfield.

State Rep. Elaine Nekritz, a Northbrook Democrat and part of a pensions committee formed by Quinn, said the cost shift is being considered.

“I think that's definitely in play,” she said.

But agreement on the issue might be tough, she said.

“That's one of the many controversial items,” Nekritz said.

Other fixes, such as making teachers and state workers pay more for their own retirements or cutting back retirees' yearly pension increase, could be controversial, too, Madigan said.

“What about somebody that's already taken their retirement? What about a widow that's already on retirement?” he said. “So, is there the will of the General Assembly to tell that person ... the next paycheck is going to be less than the one they got the other day?”

Madigan was before a House committee Tuesday winning preliminary approval for a proposed amendment to the Illinois Constitution that would make it more difficult for lawmakers to approve increased pension benefits in the future.

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Elaine Nekritz
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