Will lawmakers keep momentum on pension reform?

SPRINGFIELD — Missing Wednesday's deadline to approve vast cuts to teachers' and state workers' retirement plans doesn't have to mean that lawmakers start from scratch in the push for pension reform, some top Democrats say.

When a new class of Illinois lawmakers was sworn in Wednesday, they took their oath facing finances that are in crisis, especially after the failure of last-ditch plans last week to cope with nearly $100 billion in state pension debt.

But it was a missed deadline months ago that could have helped spark the momentum seen in the last week to try to get something done.

After a one-day meeting of the General Assembly in August, state Sen. Daniel Biss got several calls on his drive home from freshmen lawmakers frustrated that nothing had been accomplished.

The August meeting was called by Gov. Pat Quinn in the hopes of finding a pensions solution. After lawmakers left town, he told reporters he'd take the campaign to voters,eventually creating the orange cartoon snake named Squeezy the Pension Python that Quinn's staff has used to illustrate the state's financial problems.

And Biss, an Evanston Democrat, met with state Rep. Elaine Nekritz, a Northbrook Democrat, to start crafting the proposal that served as a basis for negotiations in recent weeks.

Now, Nekritz and Biss say the progress made in the last month can be built upon, not scrapped.

“The most important momentum thing we did, I think, was getting a lot of people who previously had just not been comfortable with the notion that they were going to eventually vote for a big, tough pension bill comfortable with that,” Biss said. “And we don't have enough people there yet.”

Getting people there is likely to remain immensely difficult, even as many lawmakers — including the freshmen who largely campaigned on the issue in 2012 — say publicly they want to get something done.

Many suburban and downstate lawmakers of both parties are wary of a plan to have local schools pay more toward teachers' pensions even if the new costs are phased in over the years.

Influential labor leaders argue teachers and workers shouldn't be punished for a massive state financial problem they didn't create. And the Illinois Constitution includes a section that says pension benefits cannot be “diminished.”

“The lame-duck session made it clear once again: Legally dubious proposals developed without working with those most directly affected — public employees and retirees — are a recipe for failure,” a statement from the We Are One Illinois labor coalition reads.

In addition, the plan filed as legislation last week by Nekritz and Biss is different from one proposed by Senate President John Cullerton.

Cullerton's plan, also proposed last week, includes uncommon provisions that could eventually allow the Illinois Supreme Court to pick from two options for pension changes in an inevitable legal challenge.

Cullerton's Plan A looks like a proposal Nekritz and House Republican Leader Tom Cross agreed to push during last week's lame-duck session. Benefits would be cut, but costs wouldn't be shifted to schools.

But Cullerton's plan also includes a plan B to take effect if the courts strike down plan A. Plan B would let workers choose to keep their current pension benefits and drop state-subsidized health care. Cullerton believes offering a choice won't run afoul of the Illinois Constitution.

Others have their doubts about whether that proposal would be met with favor by justices or save the state enough money to be worth doing.

In the Illinois House, Nekritz plans to keep moving ahead, tweaking their plan and pitching it to her colleagues, even though it's not a sure thing that it is constitutional.

“I feel like that path has been successful,” she said. “Certainly more successful than any other comprehensive pension bill to date.”

Lawmakers aren't scheduled to be back in Springfield for several weeks. But when they return, they'll start debating how much revenue they'll have to work with.

And the “stark reality” of how bad things are — and how much the state's annual pension payment has risen — could get the debate over cuts really moving, Nekritz says.

The state will likely have to pay about $1 billion more into the retirement funds than last year — nearly enough to pay for the state's entire prison system. The cost is slated to keep going up in coming years.

Illinois continues to face about $9 billion in overdue bills to everyone including schools, doctors and mental health providers. Quinn is also in the middle of a tussle with the state's largest employees union over raises, and the state's health care costs could continue to rise.

And the budget for next year will face even steeper challenges, with the income tax increase of 2011 set to expire halfway through, leaving lawmakers with huge questions about further budget cuts or new revenues.

So in the weeks before lawmakers return to Springfield, reform supporters might emphasize the state's daunting financial problems as they look for more votes.

“I think the most important thing is really boring,” Biss said of the key step to take in fashioning a solution. “We just keep talking. Talking to our colleagues.”

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