How suburban state Senate Democrats could sway pension argument

SPRINGFIELD — As the debate over the state’s escalating pension costs burned hot last month, the Illinois Senate took to the floor to debate two competing plans to address the problem.

Lawmakers had strong opinions on each, and a middle ground was — and is — hard to find. The stakes are high because the retirement future of thousands of teachers and retirees depends on what Illinois officials decide to do.

When it came time to vote, suburban Senate Democrats largely stuck together.

Their numbers in Springfield have never been bigger, and the pension plan they liked was approved and sent to the House. The one they didn’t was rejected.

The complicated political and financial battle over pensions and their serious impact on Illinois’ budget crisis will wear on in the coming weeks.

But the vote last month shows that a bigger, largely young group of suburban Democrats in the Senate could have a sizable say in the final outcome — if there is one.

“Without a doubt it does,” said state Sen. Terry Link, a Waukegan Democrat and the most veteran suburban Democrat in Springfield.

Eight suburban Democrats didn’t vote for a leading pension proposal that would have cut benefits for working and retired teachers and state workers. It failed by seven votes.

They are: Link and state Sens. Dan Kotowski of Park Ridge, Melinda Bush of Grayslake, Tom Cullerton of Villa Park, Linda Holmes of Aurora, Julie Morrison of Deerfield, Pat McGuire of Joliet and Jennifer Bertino-Tarrant of Shorewood.

Of them, Bush, Kotowski, Cullerton, Morrison, McGuire, Link and Bertino-Tarrant voted for a competing plan that wouldn’t have affected retired teachers but cut benefits for working ones. It was approved by exactly the number it needed to succeed.

Democratic state Sens. Mike Noland of Elgin and Don Harmon of Oak Park voted for both. Holmes, who favors a pension fix backed by public employee union leaders, voted for neither.

No Republicans voted for the plan that was approved by the Democratic-controlled legislature, and about half of them voted for the one that failed.

An eventual pension compromise will almost certainly require votes from lawmakers around the state and from both parties. And the ongoing gridlock between the House and Senate over the issue is a key hurdle that a winning plan would have to clear.

But the opinions of suburban Senate Democrats appear to be among the key factors that could eventually figure into a final deal.

“By proximity of where we all live, we share some concerns,” Kotowski said.

In November, Democrats rolled to big wins and historic margins at the Capitol, thanks in part to winning nearly all of the hottest Statehouse races in the suburbs.

Democrats in the Senate outnumber Republicans by a ratio of 2-to-1. If suburbanites stick together, they could wield some power in the state’s biggest debate.

State Sen. Daniel Biss, a Democrat and pension expert, was on the losing side of most of his suburban Democratic counterparts. In fact, it was his pension proposal that was defeated last month.

Biss said despite that result, his colleagues’ overall willingness to address the issue is “exactly what gives me optimism that we’re going to get something done.”

One of suburban Democrats’ biggest concerns appears to be cutting pension benefits for teachers and workers who have already retired and don’t have other means to pay for their retirements.

“They don’t have Social Security, so this is it,” Cullerton said.

Proposals that don’t include retirees face criticism they won’t save enough money to fix the state’s $100 billion in pension debt.

Still, the idea of taking retirement money away from seniors isn’t an attractive one.

“There’s just too much blood left on the floor,” Bush said of the deeper benefit reductions. “It’s almost punitive.”

It might take a month to find out whether Bush and others might bend in that opinion. Lawmakers’ budget deadline is May 31, and their spring session is scheduled to end that day. If Democrats who control the Capitol miss the deadline, they are more likely to need Republican votes to approve a budget.

That kind of pressure can spark compromise and deal making. If lawmakers in the waning hours of their session are confronted with legislation to reform Illinois’ pension system they don’t love and a campaign promise they made to get pension reform done, they might have to make a tough decision.

Cullerton downplayed suburban Democrats’ potential collective power because despite their strength in numbers, many are young in a legislative system that values veterans.

“We’re all freshmen,” he said.

Freshman lawmakers also tend to be the most vulnerable in re-election campaigns, and the state’s ongoing financial crisis is certain to be one of the 2014 campaign’s biggest issues.

Since the votes in the Senate a month ago and ones in the House the following day, the debate over pensions has gone largely private but is sure to re-emerge as the budget deadline looms.

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Tom Cullerton
Linda Holmes
Dan Kotowski
Terry Link
Julie Morrison
Michael Noland
Daniel Biss
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