How will the pension fight affect campaigns?

  • Lawmakers are set to meet under the Illinois Capitol dome Friday to talk about Illinois' pension debt once again, but some believe the issue will linger past November's election.

      Lawmakers are set to meet under the Illinois Capitol dome Friday to talk about Illinois' pension debt once again, but some believe the issue will linger past November's election. Gilbert R. Boucher | Staff Photographer

Updated 8/14/2012 7:50 AM

SPRINGFIELD -- The lengthy, consuming fight over retirement benefits for public workers is likely to affect campaigns for office in Springfield this November, but as the debate could continue until Election Day -- and afterward -- leaders of both parties across the state disagree on how.

Lawmakers are set to return to Springfield Friday for another shot at hashing out a deal on how to handle the state's $83 billion in pension debt just as many are blanketing their districts, knocking on doors and talking to voters.


In a Daily Herald survey of more than 75 Republican and Democratic delegates to the upcoming political conventions, 63 percent of GOP respondents said they thought cutting pension benefits for teachers, state workers and others would gain their candidates votes.

And about 15 percent of Republicans thought the issue was best left until after the election. Another 15 percent thought the issue won't affect voters.

Democrats were more split over the question, with about 35 percent thinking cutting pension benefits would cost their candidates votes and 31 percent thinking it would help them.

The split could reflect the complexity of the issue and Democrats' conflicts over how best to balance an effort to fix the state's finances while recognizing their close ties to union workers.

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Without a resolution on Friday or before the November election the pensions issue will be up for grabs, said Paul Green, director of the Institute for Politics at Roosevelt University.

"It all depends on who's the best spinner," he said.

Delegates made it clear Republicans might criticize Democrats for not finding a solution if nothing gets done.

"None of the Illinois Springfield politicians will vote on this before the election. This can't be fixed because the Illinois lawmakers are the biggest abusers of the pension system," Republican delegate Mark Shepherd of Hebron said.

But some Democrats oppose the push to cut benefits. Delegate Joe Gump of Palatine, an assistant Cook County public defender and union member, echoed concerns that benefits might get cut even though retirees have faithfully contributed their share.


"I don't feel like the pension issue should be resolved on the backs of people who haven't done anything wrong," Gump said.

The split in opinions among Democratic officials is one reason agreement in Springfield is hard to come by. Even though Democrats control the Senate and House, they don't have a consensus plan to approve. So they need Republican votes, too, and compromise between the two parties has been in short supply on the issue.

House Speaker Michael Madigan has agreed to call for a vote Friday a proposal the Senate already approved. It would cut pension benefits for lawmakers and state workers but not teachers and university employees.

Gov. Pat Quinn's office has called the plan a good start, but House Republican Leader Tom Cross of Oswego says it doesn't save enough money, so Republicans might not be expected to support it.

Cross acknowledged the vote itself might be a political move, allowing Democrats to put forth a plan they know can't pass then claim during the campaign that Republicans voted against pension reform.

State pensions will almost certainly be an issue in the Illinois House contest between Democratic state Rep. Elaine Nekritz and Republican Jonathan Greenberg, both of Northbrook, in the 57th District. The 57th District includes parts of Des Plaines, Mount Prospect, Wheeling and Northbrook, and Nekritz says she hears a lot about pensions when talking with voters.

Nekritz has been a negotiator for the Democrats as lawmakers have tried to hammer out a pensions deal and can tell voters about those efforts.

Greenberg plans to criticize Nekritz, arguing lawmakers who failed to reform the state's retirement systems should be held accountable.

The two candidates are split on a proposal to shift the state's share of paying for teachers' pensions to local school districts. Greenberg opposes the idea. Nekritz has sponsored legislation to shift costs.

"This is one of the top issues they raise with me," she said.

Greenberg says he's had a different experience, saying the voters most plugged into the issue are people like teachers who have state pensions.

"The only people who ask about pensions are people with a vested interest," Greenberg said.

With that kind of contentiousness -- plus the absence of a prearranged deal -- many observers are skeptical that Friday will bring any resolution on the pensions question. "You would have to bring back from the dead Houdini," Green said.

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