House backs older retirement, limit on pension amount

SPRINGFIELD — The Illinois House on Thursday sent to the Senate plans to raise the retirement age for public employees and limit how much of their salaries can count toward their pensions.

But the ultimate fate of those proposals and others remains cloudy as lawmakers continue to throw elbows and fight for position in the well-worn debate.

House lawmakers voted 76-41 to raise the retirement age for teachers, state workers and lawmakers. The retirement age for a worker would rise by up to five years, depending how old the worker is when the law takes effect. Workers over age 45 wouldn’t see a change.

By a 101-15 vote, they limited how much salary can be counted toward a pension at $113,700.

Those plans now go to the Senate, though, where leading Democrats already have their own plans of how to deal with the state’s skyrocketing pension costs.

Republican leaders have criticized Democrats, wondering loudly what the point is of having weeks worth of test votes and no clear path forward on a comprehensive package of reforms.

“I don’t think anyone over there knows where this is going except the Speaker,” House Republican Leader Tom Cross of Oswego said in reference to House Speaker Mike Madigan.

State Rep. Elaine Nekritz, a Northbrook Democrat, said after years of gridlock, something had to change.

“The traditional processes have not worked,” Nekritz said.

But hours after those votes in the House, Cross and Nekritz got a committee to approve a larger package of reforms that included the two they voted for earlier. That plan goes much further by, among other things, having all new teachers split their retirement plans between a pension and a 401k-style system.

Still, the full House has yet to agree on whether to cut annual pension benefit hikes for retirees, a move included in Cross’ and Nekritz’ bill that is widely regarded as the one that would save the state money. So the future remains unclear.

If nothing else, the last two days of intense debates over public employee pensions have highlighted how the Illinois Constitution looms over the issue.

The 1970 document bars pension benefits from being “diminished,” so the legal question joins the already significant financial, political and regional issues that have kept lawmakers from getting a bill to Gov. Pat Quinn’s desk.

On Thursday, state Rep. Michael Tryon, a Crystal Lake Republican, said he couldn’t support raising the retirement age because it was a clear benefit cut. Typically, Republicans have argued that the state’s financial crisis is so severe that cuts are warranted.

The legal stakes are high. If the Illinois Supreme Court were to block what lawmakers do with the issue, the General Assembly would be faced with starting from scratch on a debate that has been going on for years already.

And the financial issues are huge, too, as the state is set to pay $1 billion more toward employees’ retirement than last year, nearly enough to pay for the entire Illinois prison system for a year.

In addition, thousands of suburban teachers’ and retirees’ retirement livelihoods hinge on what lawmakers decide to do — if anything.

As the House continues to mull over various plans, Quinn backs one from Senate President John Cullerton, a Chicago Democrat who has agreed to include provisions from Nekritz in his legislation.

“That’s pretty fair,” Quinn said Thursday.

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Mike Tryon
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