Odds of pension legislation by Wednesday get longer

SPRINGFIELD — As some suburban Democrats roamed the Illinois House floor looking for votes, lawmakers adjourned for the day Monday without sending the Senate a plan to cut teachers' and state workers' pension benefits and try to solve one of the state's biggest financial problems.

The debate over the state's rising retirement costs has consumed lawmakers, and frustration that their terms could end Wednesday without getting pension legislation approved rose to the surface Monday.

“Two years later, still nothing, nothing has happened,” said House Republican Leader Tom Cross of Oswego, who began pushing a different proposal two years ago.

What happened Monday was preliminary approval in a House committee of a deal between Cross and state Rep. Elaine Nekritz, a Northbrook Democrat, that would have required teachers to pay more of their salaries into retirement funds and cut how generous their eventual pensions would be.

But Nekritz and state Rep. Daniel Biss, an Evanston Democrat, were unable to find enough supporters on the House floor to go forward.

Because the proposal didn't move any further Monday, its odds for approval before Wednesday's noon inaugural of a new General Assembly were long.

“My goal is to just keep working until the bell rings,” Nekritz said.

Even though the state House could vote Tuesday, the Senate wouldn't start working on it until the afternoon at the earliest — if senators show up in Springfield at all. The Senate left Springfield last week with the intention of returning only if the House approved a pension plan.

“Members are on standby until we see significant action from the House on pensions,” said Rikeesha Phelon, spokeswoman for Senate President John Cullerton.

What's holding up the plan is a complicated mix of partisan and regional politics.

For example, when Gov. Pat Quinn Friday announced that suburban and downstate schools would no longer have to pay for teachers' pensions under a new plan, more lawmakers from those areas got on board.

But Chicago lawmakers didn't like that idea.

And not all suburban Republicans thought the pension benefit cuts offered by Nekritz and Cross went far enough.

“Passing a bill like this will enable our state to limp along for decades,” said state Rep. Tom Morrison, a Palatine Republican. “It's going to take some of the immediate pressure off. But it's not a genuine fix long term.”

And union leaders protested loudly in the opposite direction, saying the Illinois Constitution doesn't allow for “diminished” benefits and scolding lawmakers for appearing to not honor their oaths of office to uphold the document.

“You have all taken this oath,” Illinois Federation of Teachers President Dan Montgomery said of the lawmakers.

How the Illinois Supreme Court would eventually rule has colored the debate from the beginning and provided a fundamental difference between Cullerton and House supporters on how to move forward.

“We have a lot of attorney wannabes who are all of the sudden claiming it is constitutional or it's not constitutional,” said state Rep. Fred Crespo, a Hoffman Estates Democrat. “We don't know until the courts decide what's going to happen.”

Under the proposal debated Monday, teachers, university workers, state employees and lawmakers would see the following changes:

Ÿ Teachers, state workers and retirees wouldn't get the usual bump in their annual benefits for the next six years.

Ÿ At the end of the six years, the increase in annual pension benefits would be reduced for most teachers and state workers.

Ÿ In addition, benefit increases would kick in only when a worker or retiree reaches 67 years old.

Ÿ Employees eventually would pay 2 percent more of their salaries into retirement funds.

Ÿ The state would guarantee to make its share of the payments.

Ÿ When the state finishes paying off other loans, the money would be put toward its immense pension debt.

Nekritz argued those changes would be constitutional because in exchange for smaller pensions, teachers and workers would be left with pension funds that are not in danger of insolvency.

If lawmakers don't meet their deadline Wednesday, the General Assembly can start again. About three dozen new lawmakers will be sworn in Wednesday for the new session.

“I don't think we need to start over from scratch,” Nekritz said. “This is a piece of legislation that has had the most bipartisan support and the most momentum behind it.”

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House Republican Leader Tom Cross of Oswego testifies during a House committee hearing at the Illinois Capitol Monday. Associated Press
State Rep. Elaine Nekritz, a Northbrook Democrat, speaks to reporters after a House committee hearing at the Illinois State Capitol. Associated Press
Elaine Nekritz
Darlene Senger
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