Challenger takes issue with Harmon's vote on pensions

The Democratic primary between a longtime state senator and his challenger in the 39th Senate District may center on a key vote taken by the incumbent on state pension reform.

State Sen. Don Harmon was one of 30 senators to vote for pension reform legislation that passed both chambers of the legislature and made it to Gov. Pat Quinn's desk last December.

But the law is now facing a constitutional challenge by public employee unions, and it's expected the Illinois Supreme Court will make the final decision on whether the law takes effect.

Harmon, 47, an Oak Park lawyer who has represented the 39th District since 2003, says his vote in favor of Senate Bill 1 was "the most painful and difficult vote" he's cast since arriving in Springfield, but he says it was necessary to try to put the state back on firm financial footing.

His opponent, Bob Galhotra, 47, a Chicago attorney with the Cook County public defender's office and one-time union leader, has taken exception with Harmon's vote, saying that the legislation "at best, is going to be a (loser), and at worst, is going to be pension theft from retirees."

The bill 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 measures.

Galhotra said he's hopeful the court will find the legislation unconstitutional, and if elected, he would work toward passage of Senate Bill 2404.

That's the bill Harmon said he and other Senate colleagues preferred, but it didn't have enough votes in the House. Some estimates say the bill wouldn't have saved the state as much money as the one that passed - a projected difference between $55 billion and $160 billion.

And though Harmon says he and others have had doubts about the constitutionality of Senate Bill 1, "we had to act. We couldn't politically posture."

"It doesn't solve the problem, but I think it gives us a fair amount of headroom to climb out of this hole. When you're in the bottom of the hole, the first thing you do is stop digging," Harmon said. "We could not sit on our hands and say, 'No, we're just going to let the state sink.'"

In January, Galhotra took out a campaign ad in the Chicago Sun-Times in the form of an "open letter" addressed to public employees, in which he wrote, "Harmon's vote alone stole the pensions of hard working families."

"And now, because of the pension injustice recently passed in the Illinois State Senate, I am calling for direct and immediate action against Senator Harmon in the upcoming primary election," Galhotra wrote.

Galhotra was president of Cook County Public Defenders Association AFSCME Local 3315 until early last year, when he was promoted to a management position.

Harmon said voting for the legislation was "tough because we're playing with people's retirement security," but legislators tried to be fair in crafting the bill. Employees closer to retirement who have less ability to adapt are "hit much less hard" than newer employees, he said.

The winner of the Democratic primary will run unopposed in the general election. The 39th Senate District includes all or parts of Rosemont, Bensenville, Wood Dale and Addison, among other communities.

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