Pension reform now left to possible summer debate
SPRINGFIELD -- After years of talks, months of negotiations and days of intense partisan fighting, an effort to try to repair the state's deeply troubled public pension systems sputtered and died Thursday night, leaving open the question of whether the task could be accomplished before November's election.
The push to cut pension costs by reducing benefits for teachers and state workers ended in gridlock after Democrats and Republicans couldn't beat a Thursday night deadline to reconcile dueling proposals that would both require suburban school districts to pay more out of their own budgets for teachers' retirement.
Now, lawmakers could extend their spring session into summer, and Gov. Pat Quinn said he'll call a meeting of top lawmakers next week to try to work out a deal.
"As I have repeatedly made clear, inaction on pension reform is not a choice," Quinn said.
But action in the coming months will be difficult. Starting today, any legislation that takes effect immediately will requires more votes for passage -- a tall order on a controversial proposal, especially one that couldn't even get majority support before Thursday's deadline.
Meanwhile, every additional dollar lawmakers spend on employee pensions can't be spent on other necessities like education or care for the disabled and elderly.
"The numbers add up, and we can't change the numbers," said state Rep. David Harris, an Arlington Heights Republican.
Lawmakers appeared close to a deal in the closing days of May, but they ran out of time, pressured both by union officials protesting pension benefit cuts and by local school officials who feared they'd have to take on millions of dollars more in retirement costs.
Progress ground to a halt when top Democrats late Wednesday abandoned a plan to have suburban school districts take over the state's share of pension costs. Republicans had staunchly opposed that provision.
But cutting it also eliminated Democrats' support for the pension reform proposal, and because Democrats control the Illinois House and Senate, the legislation died.
In the Senate, lawmakers approved reforms that affect themselves and state workers and themselves, a test vote that didn't consider changes to teachers and university workers. The close 30-24 vote could be an indicator of how difficult compromise could be.
"This is like trying to put out a forest fire with a spray bottle," said state Sen. Dan Duffy, a Lake Barrington Republican.
The most recent House Republican plan would have required school districts to pay pension costs associated with any salary increases given in the final years of teachers' careers.
"We believe school districts ought to have a little skin in the game," House Republican Leader Tom Cross of Oswego said.
Democrats were deeply skeptical, though. They argued no one has yet done the math on Cross' plan, and it was unclear whether the idea would end up being even worse for school districts than a slowly phased-in transfer of pension costs.
The pension plans debated this week would have cut a yearly cost-of-living pension increase for current and future retirees, targeting the single biggest factor in rising pension costs. As a group, the plan includes state workers, teachers, university employees and lawmakers. Judges would be exempt.
Unions representing workers say they'll renew their lobbying efforts to try to beat benefit cuts back.
"We have the opportunity to renew our efforts," reads a statement from the union We Are One Coalition. "The union coalition stands ready to engage in further discussions aimed at developing legislation we can all support -- one that is constitutional, fair to workers and retirees, and secures the financial health of the pension systems on which they depend."
It also would guarantee the state pay its share of pension costs every year. Delinquency in doing this over decades has largely caused the state's pension mess.
Some suburban school officials, though relieved they so far won't have to assume more costs, agreed lawmakers must confront pension funding.
"It's a mess, it truly is, and something needs to be done ... . Otherwise, there won't be money available for anybody down the road," said Ric King, assistant superintendent for business services at Schaumburg Township Elementary District 54.
But now, it's back to the drawing board for lawmakers who could have to pay as much as $800 million more for pensions in next year's budget if they do nothing, forcing more budget cuts elsewhere.
"That's how dire this is," said state Rep. Elaine Nekritz, a Northbrook Democrat and top pension negotiator.
The Nov. 6 election, though, is an imposing date on lawmakers' calendars, and some might be more willing to tackle a politically prickly issue afterward. Some lawmakers don't want to wait that long, and how successful they'll be could become more clear as early as next week.
"This is a summer issue," Cross said. "Not a fall issue."
• Daily Herald Staff Writer Jessica Cilella contributed to this report.
Pension: Cross says it's now 'a summer issue'