Suburban lawmakers in both parties on both sides of pension reform vote
SPRINGFIELD — Illinois lawmakers sent sweeping cuts to teachers' and public workers' retirements to Gov. Pat Quinn today, clearing the controversial issue from their agendas before the 2014 election year and leaving the final say in the matter to the courts.
The vote was the result of years of debate where lawmakers had to try to balance the state's horrible finances and $100 billion in pension debt with retirement benefits that are guaranteed by the Illinois Constitution.
“I empathize with each and every one of them, and I don't take any joy in this action today,” said state Rep. Elaine Nekritz, a Northbrook Democrat who during the House debate read a letter from a suburban teacher who backed the cuts as a way to try to save the state's pension systems.
The complex proposal, which Quinn is expected to sign, would reduce annual pension cost-of-living increases, raise the retirement age and lower how much workers have to pay toward their own retirements, among other things.
It was approved by a 62-53 vote in the Illinois House and a 30-24 vote in the Senate. Suburban lawmakers split, with members of each party on both sides of the debate.
Nekritz was a leading architect of the plan while Democratic state Sen. Linda Holmes of Aurora stood with union leaders on the other side. Republicans were similarly split, with many in support and the opponents split into two camps: People who thought the cuts were too harsh and those who thought they were not harsh enough.
Holmes characterized lawmakers' votes as the same as a thief stealing a homeowner's valuables in the night.
“This is inherently unfair,” Holmes said. “This is a promise broken.”
State Rep. Tom Morrison, a Palatine Republican, advocated putting public employees into 401(k)-style retirement plans more common in the private sector, saying the plan approved today doesn't save enough money.
He spoke of meeting over coffee with constituents who disagreed with him, trying to talk through their opposing views. But Morrison said that with Illinois having the worst pension debt in the nation, lawmakers have “got to go big.”
“All we've done is delayed the day of reckoning just a little bit longer,” he said.
The long effort to get to today's vote got a jolt about a year ago, when Nekritz, state Sen. Daniel Biss of Evanston and state Rep. Darlene Senger of Naperville gathered a group of about 20 lawmakers to back legislation that would become a distant ancestor of the approved plan.
It morphed over the year and resulted in the legislation on Quinn's desk, which is said to save the state $160 billion over 30 years.
Illinois' pension debt has been a key target in trying to address the state's dismal finances because the rising yearly payments have taken money away from spending in other areas, like schools, prisons and care for the disabled and poor.
Suburban support was critical to passage. Suburban Democrats in the Senate in particular had raised concerns about effects on retirees and had voted as a group to all but block previous, similar legislation. They split in today's vote.
State Sen. Julie Morrison, a Deerfield Democrat, said she had major concerns about the proposal but voted “yes” because she didn't think it was acceptable to do nothing.
“I really voted reluctantly for it,” Morrison said. “I think it's got to get in front of the court system.”
Lawmakers were subject to fierce lobbying from every side, including powerful Illinois teachers unions.
“We feel it's blatantly unconstitutional,” Illinois Federation of Teachers President Dan Montgomery told a committee of lawmakers earlier in the day. “It will save no money at all.”
Union leaders are now sure to sue and make that argument before judges, ultimately putting the fate of lawmakers' plan in the hands of the Illinois Supreme Court.
With one vote, the state's seven justices could undo years of compromising and hand a big victory to teachers and workers.
“It's disingenuous to tell the public we solved the pension problem if we really didn't,” said state Sen. Terry Link, a Waukegan Democrat who voted no.
Some Republicans lobbied on the other side of unions, arguing the proposal didn't save enough money. But GOP leaders in the state House and Senate pushed back against that view.
“$160 billion in savings is real money,” House Republican Leader Jim Durkin of Western Springs told the committee. “It's not Monopoly money.”
Senate President John Cullerton, a Chicago Democrat, missed a morning hearing so he could round up votes behind the scenes, evidence that fierce lobbying continued until the last minute.
The vote could affect the campaigns of hopefuls for higher office who were directly involved in the debate, including Senger's campaign for Congress, state Sen. Kirk Dillard's campaign for governor and state Sen. Jim Oberweis' campaign for U.S. Senate.
Senger and Oberweis, a Sugar Grove Republican, voted for the plan. Dillard, a Hinsdale Republican, voted against it, saying he thought it could be unconstitutional.
“So what are we really doing here? We're leaving a baby at the doorsteps, late at night, and hoping for the best,” Dillard said in a statement.
Underscoring the sometimes strange bedfellows the debate created, Dillard's running mate — state Rep. Jil Tracy of Quincy — voted for the plan. State Sen. Bill Brady, a Bloomington Republican and candidate for governor, also voted “yes.”
The vote on pensions capped a year in which lawmakers cleared the table of many controversial issues before the 2014 election, approving earlier in the year same-sex marriage, medical marijuana and concealed carry.
And it gives Gov. Pat Quinn a big electoral boost, as he's previously said he was “put on Earth” to solve the pension dilemma.
But public employee unions that have supported the Democrat in the past aren't happy over this issue.
Illinois teachers don't get Social Security, so their pensions represent all of their retirement security, Illinois Education Association Vice President Kathi Griffin of Schaumburg argued.
She said the proposed pension benefit cuts are so deep that teachers might eventually qualify for Social Security, which could saddle local school districts with costly Social Security taxes.
“Local homeowners in every part of Illinois have had enough,” Griffin said.
State Sen. Matt Murphy, a Palatine Republican, called the argument “fear mongering.” He said that was unlikely to happen in the next 20 years, if ever.
How suburban lawmakers voted on a package of public pension benefit cuts.
Rep. Patti Bellock, Hinsdale Republican; Rep. Linda Chapa LaVia, Aurora Democrat; Rep. Deborah Conroy, Elmhurst Democrat; Rep. Fred Crespo, Hoffman Estates Democrat; Rep. Scott Drury, Highwood Democrat; Rep. Jim Durkin, Western Springs Republican; Keith Farnham, Elgin Democrat; Rep. Kay Hatcher, Yorkville Republican; Rep. Stephanie Kifowit, Aurora Democrat; Rep. Michael McAuliffe, a Chicago Republican; Rep. Marty Moylan, Des Plaines Democrat; Rep. Michelle Mussman, Schaumburg Democrat; Rep. Elaine Nekritz, Northbrook Democrat; Rep. JoAnn Osmond, Antioch Republican; Rep. Dennis Reboletti, Elmhurst Republican; Rep. Ron Sandack, Downers Grove Republican; Rep. Darlene Senger, Naperville Republican; Rep. Carol Sente, Vernon Hills Democrat; Rep. Timothy Schmitz, Batavia Republican; Rep. Ed Sullivan, Mundelein Republican; Rep. Barbara Wheeler, Crystal Lake Republican; Kathleen Willis, Addison Democrat; Rep. Sam Yingling, Grayslake Democrat; Sen. Pamela Althoff, McHenry Republican; Sen. Michael Connelly, Lisle Republican; Sen. Don Harmon, Oak Park Democrat; Sen. Dan Kotowski, Park Ridge Democrat; Sen. Karen McConnaughay, St. Charles Republican; Sen. Julie Morrison, Deerfield Democrat; Sen. John Mulroe, Chicago Democrat; Sen. Matt Murphy, Palatine Republican; Sen. Jim Oberweis, Sugar Grove Republican; Sen. Christine Radogno, Lemont Republican
Rep. Tom Cross, Oswego Republican; Rep. Mike Fortner, West Chicago Republican; Rep. Jack Franks, Marengo Democrat; Rep. David Harris, Arlington Heights Republican; Rep. Jeanne Ives, Wheaton Republican; Rep. Rita Mayfield, Waukegan Democrat; David McSweeney, Barrington Hills Republican; Rep. Tom Morrison, Palatine Republican; Sandra Pihos, Glen Ellyn Republican; Rep. Michael Tryon, Crystal Lake Republican; Sen. Melinda Bush, Grayslake Democrat; Sen. Tom Cullerton, Villa Park Democrat; Sen. Kirk Dillard, Hinsdale Republican; Sen. Dan Duffy, Lake Barrington Republican; Sen. Linda Holmes, Aurora Democrat; Sen. Terry Link, Waukegan Democrat; Sen. Michael Noland, Elgin Democrat