Two competing pension plans get state panel OK

SPRINGFIELD — A lengthy Senate hearing over one of the Illinois' biggest financial problems laid out in clear view that while a lot of lawmakers want to cut public pension benefits, agreeing on a way to do it could remain difficult.

A three-hour debate resulted in a committee approving two competing pension reform plans. Without agreement to pick one, there's still doubt that after years of talks lawmakers will be ready to send legislation to Gov. Pat Quinn anytime soon.

The first plan, one from state Sen. Daniel Biss, an Evanston Democrat, would limit retirees' annual benefit increases and raise the retirement age, among other things. It could save the state nearly $2 billion a year if allowed to take effect.

It was approved by an 11-4 vote, sending it to the Senate floor for consideration. But a handful of senators voting for it said they might not do the same when it comes for a full vote, casting some doubt on its future.

The same was true for an 11-3 vote on a plan by Senate President John Cullerton. It combines Biss' legislation with a backup plan should the Illinois Supreme Court declare the first idea unconstitutional. The backup plan would give workers and retirees choices between taking a pension cut or losing access to state-subsidized health care.

“We're trying to anticipate a constitutional challenge,” Cullerton said.

That legal challenge would almost certainly come from union leaders who say benefit cuts are unfair to workers who've had no role in causing Illinois' financial disaster.

Lawmakers and reform supporters spent more than three hours debating the complex legal questions that come from trying to cut benefits the Illinois Constitution says can't be “diminished” or “impaired.”

At one point, state Sen. Don Harmon, an Oak Park Democrat, said in addition to the legal and financial questions, the political realities needed to be considered as well.

Getting enough lawmakers and Gov. Pat Quinn to all agree on one proposal might take some concessions from all sides.

“We can't just snap our fingers and do that,” Harmon said.

State Sen. Matt Murphy, a Palatine Republican, said he opposed Cullerton's plan because the backup provision doesn't save as much money and lawmakers might only get one shot at pension reform, as political will to do something is likely to dissipate once something — anything — is approved.

He and other Senate Republicans in the meantime fought back Wednesday against House Speaker Michael Madigan's suggestion that suburban schools get a “free lunch” because the state pays for their teachers' retirements.

Murphy said suburban schools take less state money than Chicago schools, which pay for their own teacher pensions.

“To be told that somehow we were getting a free lunch was a little difficult to take,” Murphy said.

Madigan has used the “free lunch” line to push for legislation requiring suburban schools to start paying for pension costs. That provision was in neither bill approved by senators Wednesday.

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