Biss: Illinois suffocating under too many pension systems

Merging Illinois' more than 600 pension systems could reduce inefficiencies and save money, state Sen. Daniel Biss said Tuesday during an interview in which he also hinted at his income tax plan and revealed "micromanaging" by House Speaker Mike Madigan.

The 40-year-old running for governor in the March 20 primary said only consulting firms benefit from duplicative public pension funds. Biss, one of six Democratic candidates for governor, met Tuesday with the Daily Herald editorial board.

Biss admitted he and others passed a flawed law in 2013 intended to reduce pension debt. The law was struck down in 2015 by the Illinois Supreme Court, which said raising the retirement age for younger employees, capping the salary eligible for a pension and limiting cost-of-living increases violated the state Constitution.

"The state's got awful budget problems, and state pension debt is an awful part of it," said Biss, a co-sponsor of the 2013 legislation. "I do think there was kind of an obsessive hysteria about it a few years ago that led a lot of people in the legislature, myself included, to act irresponsibly. That bill was unconstitutional."

Biss says consolidating pension systems is one way to cut costs. Illinois "has 628 different pension systems," Biss said. "For almost every community in the Daily Herald area there are two pension systems, one for police officers and one for firefighters ... that are served by the same investment and legal consultants. We've built a system whose investment returns cannot be what they should be and that allow politically connected consultants to reach their hands into 628 different pockets and come out with taxpayer dollars."

He also advocates allowing buyouts for pension plan participants.

The former math professor is running against Democrats Madison County Superintendent of Schools Bob Daiber, Chicago activist Tio Hardiman, Kenilworth developer Chris Kennedy, Chicago billionaire businessman J.B. Pritzker and physician Robert Marshall of Burr Ridge, who will meet the editorial board in upcoming sessions.

Biss, who grew up in Bloomington, Indiana, has a bachelor's degree from Harvard University and taught mathematics at the University of Chicago.

A key issue for Democrats in the primary is demonstrating their independence from Madigan. Biss said he pushed back against the speaker after winning a House district Madigan and Democratic leaders thought would be targeted by Republicans in 2010.

"If they think you're a target, then they try to micromanage your every move. They tried to tell me how to vote, and I fought them tooth and nail," Biss said. "They tried to tell me how to do constituent services, and I fought them tooth and nail.

"They tried to put - at no cost to myself - a staffer in my district office to help me, and I needed help, but I didn't want a spy, so I turned that down. They tried to get access to my calendar so they would know what I was doing in my district, but I declined. We butted heads all the time."

Most Democrats running for governor support a graduated income tax. Asked for specifics on his plan, Biss said, "As a kind of indicator, we should look at neighboring states like Wisconsin and Iowa."

Wisconsin's top tax rate is 7.65 percent, and Iowa's is 8.98 percent.

"I wouldn't start by saying, 'There's got to be four brackets,'" Biss said. "I would start by saying, 'Let's acknowledge that the middle-class and working poor people of Illinois have been overpaying. Let's acknowledge that the wealthiest residents have been underpaying."

He noted that Illinois is one of a few states with a flat income tax system and said it suffers in comparison with its Midwestern neighbors. "All we need to do is to be as good as Ohio," he said.

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  State Sen. Daniel Biss, a Democratic candidate for governor, says "the state's got awful budget problems, and state pension debt is an awful part of it." Mark Welsh/
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