Not all retirees back union-favored pension cuts

SPRINGFIELD — Public employee union leaders are mounting a unified push behind pension-cutting legislation in the state Senate, but not all of their members are on board.

Union officials this week joined with Senate President John Cullerton to get behind a proposal that could cut teachers' and state workers' pensions or their health care benefits in retirement.

They drew praise from some union members for continuing to negotiate even as a competing harsher package of pension cuts gained momentum in the Illinois House last week.

Bob Haisman, a retired social studies teacher in Hinsdale, said no one likes to see benefit cuts, but he thinks union leaders cut a fair deal with Cullerton. He compared the talks to district-level contract negotiations.

“If both sides were unhappy with the contract, you knew you probably had a pretty good agreement,” Haisman said. “That's why it's called compromise.”

Not everyone agreed.

Fred Klonsky, a former Park Ridge elementary school art teacher who retired last year, posted online that he would be giving up his seat on a bus to Springfield to lobby for the plan, saying he couldn't back it.

Klonsky argued that the Illinois House proposal posed little threat because it would eventually be struck down by courts anyway, because of a provision in the Illinois Constitution that retirement benefits can't be “diminished.”

“There was no reason to give in on these issues,” Klonsky said.

The union-backed proposal would allow teachers, state workers and retirees to choose among three options that entail giving up some pension benefits to save money or making other sacrifices, such as losing health care coverage in retirement. Cullerton and other proponents say offering a choice allows the cuts to fit within constitutional limits.

An initial vote on the union-backed pension plan could happen before a Senate committee today.

In the meantime, House Speaker Michael Madigan has said he'll convene a panel of education lobbyists Thursday to talk about how to go forward with a controversial plan to have suburban and downstate school districts take over the state's contribution toward teachers' pensions. Chicago schools already pay for their teachers' pensions.

“The practice of state taxpayers paying the pensions of nonstate workers should come to an end as soon as possible,” Madigan said in a statement.

The gridlock over benefit cuts is the higher-profile fight at the moment, and a top teachers union leader said Tuesday the group's backing of the pension benefit-cutting proposal in the Illinois Senate is a “full-throated” endorsement.

“I'm confident that our members support this,” Illinois Federation of Teachers President Dan Montgomery said. “There's always going to be some consternation, absolutely.”

Part of the union lobbying effort, he said, would be to make sure the House plan backed by Speaker Michael Madigan died.

“The Madigan bill in the Senate has to be killed,” Montgomery said.

The Illinois Retired Teachers Association praised the union-backed Senate plan as “less draconian” but won't be backing it.

“If our organization sits back without a fight and allows changes to the spirit of our state's laws governing enforceable contracts, then no agreement will ever again be safe from arbitrary dissolution under the law,” said association Executive Director James Bachman.

Should the union-backed plan make it through the Senate, House lawmakers who voted just last week on a different idea to raise the retirement age, cut retirees' benefits and make them pay more toward retirement would have to change their minds to approve it. Some suburban lawmakers who voted against Madigan's plan said they might vote for Cullerton's.

“It looks like it passes constitutional muster and I would potentially support it if it came to the House,” said state Rep. Dennis Reboletti, an Elmhurst Republican.

But state Rep. Elaine Nekritz, a Northbrook Democrat and pension expert, said offering teachers bad choices isn't any more constitutional than the House's proposal.

“For them to say that the legislature is giving people two choices, neither of which they have today, both of which are less than what they have today, I don't know how that's different from what we're saying,” Nekritz said.

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Comparing the pension plans

<b>Cullerton plan </b>

Illinois Senate President John Cullerton's plan would offer teachers and state employees three options:

Ÿ Less generous annual cost-of-living benefit hikes, and in exchange, their future salary raises would count toward their pensions and health care help would be guaranteed in retirement. Ÿ Keep current yearly cost-of-living hikes but give up health care coverage in retirement; raises wouldn't count toward pensions. Ÿ Keep current yearly hikes by putting 2 percent more of their salaries toward retirement and agreeing to skip the cost-of-living adjustments for three years.

Ÿ Retirees would get similar options.

<b>Madigan plan</b>

Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan's pension cost-cutting proposal would:

Ÿ Cap how much of an employee's annual salary could count toward a pension at about $109,000. That number would grow slowly over the years.

Ÿ Reduce retirees' annual cost-of-living adjustments. A retiree would get a 3 percent annual increase calculated on $1,000 for every year worked. Someone who worked 20 years would get an annual increase of 3 percent of $20,000, or $600.

Ÿ Require employees to pay 2 percent more of their salaries toward retirement.

Ÿ Raise the retirement age by one to five years, depending on how old a worker is when the law takes effect.

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