State, teachers far from deal on pension reform
SPRINGFIELD — Suburban teachers turned up the heat on Illinois leaders last week, gathering by the hundreds to get information about their future retirements while state lawmakers face a deadline in less than three weeks to find a way to lower the state's escalating pension costs.
Labor leaders, including teachers union representatives, are meeting with lawmakers of both parties and Gov. Pat Quinn's staff, but are far from agreement on any changes that would cut pension benefits, said state Rep. Elaine Nekritz, a Northbrook Democrat who's part of pension talks.
"There are still significant points of disagreement," she said last week.
It's unclear, so far, whether union leaders would go along with any benefit cuts for teachers, or whether they'd back cuts large enough to make a big enough impact to the state's pension problem to satisfy lawmakers.
For the first time, the Illinois Federation of Teachers is hinting they might be willing to give a little.
"Our members are willing to sacrifice more to help solve the pension crisis, but they are definitely not willing to bear the whole burden by themselves," federation spokesman David Comerford said. "Although we have made our pension payments through every paycheck, we've offered reasonable changes that will result in billions of dollars of state savings over the coming years."
In the suburbs, teachers have spoken up in public, going to meetings held by the Teachers' Retirement System to get more information about what cuts might entail. And some of them don't want their union leaders to give in.
"Absolutely not," said Rick Ryan, a 36-year teacher at Joyce Kilmer Elementary in Buffalo Grove said. "I would say they shouldn't."
Quinn is proposing teachers pay 3 percent more of their salaries toward retirement. He'd also raise the retirement age to 67, lower annual pension benefit increases for future retirees and have local school districts pay more for teachers' retirements.
But Ryan echoed many teachers and other labor leaders in arguing the state's $83 billion pension deficit was the fault of state leaders who skipped scheduled payments into pension funds while teachers faithfully contributed 9.4 percent of their salaries for years.
"We're getting hit from every direction, and it's really not our fault," he said.
Still, teachers union officials are involved in pension talks and have suggested changes to state law that would both require lawmakers to pay their share of pension costs every year and change the way that amount is calculated, said state Rep. Darlene Senger, a Naperville Republican.
That's a point being made by local teachers, too. Rick Gerz of Hoffman Estates, a retired teacher from Schaumburg-Palatine High School District 211, said some teachers might be open to paying more toward their own retirements, but Quinn's plan doesn't come with a guarantee that the state will do the same.
"None of them have the key ingredient in them — guaranteed funding from the other side," he said.
Most observers agree that whatever cuts lawmakers make could result in a lawsuit, leaving any pension changes to be eventually sorted out by the courts.
Lawmakers are shooting to get something done by the end of the month, their budget-making deadline.
Major credit-rating agencies have threatened to downgrade Illinois if lawmakers don't act to rein in pension costs, and Quinn has made reform a priority. If lawmakers leave Springfield without making changes, Quinn could try to force them to return this summer.
They're already moving forward on other cost-saving plans that will hit state retirees' bottom line.
Lawmakers this week sent to Quinn legislation that would require many retirees to start paying health care premiums for the first time.
That plan doesn't affect retired reachers, who already pay part of a premium, but the move to start charging state and university workers for health care was a tough vote for lawmakers, perhaps foreshadowing how hard similar cuts to pension benefits might be.
"Things happen in life," Senate Republican Leader Christine Radogno said while debating the plan. "And we have to adjust."
What's happened in Illinois, as in many other states, is skyrocketing increases in pension costs, leaving less money for other expenses like schools and care for the disabled and elderly.
Lawmakers already have to tackle this year an arguably bigger budget issue by trying to cut 18 percent from what the state spends on health care for the poor by May 31, too.
The last major pension changes lawmakers made — to future employees at the time — was done in one day in March 2010 without warning, before unions and opponents had time to organize and push back.
This time, though, talks have been going on for months.
"They are definitely involved and engaged," Nekritz said.
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