Will Walker election affect pension debate?

SPRINGFIELD — Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s survival of a recall election is seen by some as a national referendum on the power of public employee unions he fought, yet union officials and lawmakers in Illinois say the result isn’t likely to play into continued efforts here to cut workers’ retirement benefits.

In part, that’s because Illinois’ public employee unions remain at the bargaining table in the Democrat-led push to cut health care and pension benefits.

Illinois’ dire fiscal outlook, as well, already has many lawmakers of both parties generally agreeing that benefits cutbacks are needed.

“I think the facts on the ground in Illinois make a good case on their own,” said state Sen. Matt Murphy, a Palatine Republican.

Top Illinois Democratic and Republican legislative leaders met Wednesday in Chicago to begin trying to hash out details of a pension deal and will meet again in two weeks.

State Rep. Elaine Nekritz, a Northbrook Democrat and pension negotiator, said Walker wasn’t exactly on their minds as leaders seek to craft a bill with enough support to prevail in Springfield.

“No one mentioned the recall election or Scott Walker,” Nekritz said.

While the Wisconsin vote Tuesday is seen by some as a jumping-off point for GOP leaders in states like Michigan, Minnesota and Missouri to push for anti-union measures, Illinois public employee unions remain part of the discussions that are focused entirely on benefit costs.

“I have a difficult time drawing a lot of parallels between them,” said Illinois Education Association director of government relations Jim Reed.

Even a plan approved by lawmakers last year that cut state retirees’ health care allows unions to bargain on what the premium they pay should be.

“It is a willingness and an acknowledgment that we have strong collective bargaining laws in Illinois,” Reed said.

Though the Wisconsin battle could die down now, the Illinois pension battle might rage on. Even if lawmakers agree to a way to cut pension benefits and to shift some costs to local school districts, a union lawsuit is imminent.

Even if Walker’s victory has no direct impact here, it could be unsettling for workers, Emily Rosenberg, director of the DePaul University Labor Education Center at the School for New Learning, told the Daily Herald before the election.

“It’s also scary for workers in general because the handwriting’s on the wall, ‘Don’t try and assert your rights because we will smash you,’” she said.

Walker’s win could be read as a national bellwether for November, as there are few races between now and Election Day that offer a glimpse into what might be coming for either party.

In Illinois, election-year pressure could be adding to the gridlock over pension reform, too, though top pension negotiators in the legislature say they’re ignoring it.

“I’m going to presume we’re all taking a professional, not a political, approach to this,” said state Sen. Michael Noland, an Elgin Democrat.

Ÿ Daily Herald news services contributed to this report.

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