Tight deadline could force tough choices
SPRINGFIELD -- A review of what suburban lawmakers said during their campaigns suggests many of November's winners either opposed having local schools take on some of the state's costs for teachers' pensions or supported the idea only with significant caveats.
Yet, that remains part of several key proposals to fix pensions, suggesting a deal might depend on whether any of those lawmakers are persuaded to change those positions.
Lawmakers are preparing for an eleventh-hour debate over how to curb the state's rising pension costs. The relentless yearly rise of Illinois's pension costs cuts into what the state has to spend on nearly everything else, from health care to schools to maintenance of roads and state parks.
Several fixes have been proposed with none gaining enough support, and lawmakers are feeling the pressure.
"It's been an emotional roller coaster for everyone on every side of this," said state Rep. Michelle Mussman, a Schaumburg Democrat.
Mussman opposes making local schools take on some of the state's pension costs, and said so during the campaign.
Mussman said last week -- after Northbrook Democratic state Rep. Elaine Nekritz presented yet another pension plan -- that the right deal to save the state money could make her reconsider, but she's far from doing that now.
"But I honestly couldn't define what would be the thing that would change my opinion," she said.
Lawmakers have until Jan. 9 to figure it out, when about three dozen new lawmakers will be sworn in and all legislation has to start from scratch.
That's a tight deadline to hash out the biggest money problem in a state with some of the worst finances in America. So lawmakers could be served up with legislation with almost no notice and forced to make a decision on the spot. In that case, Mussman said, she'd just have to do her best.
"You don't ever want to feel you were rushed into a bad decision," she said.
Although many suburban lawmakers opposed shifting costs to schools in their comments before the Nov. 6 election, many also hedged a bit.
"I want to make sure that the state doesn't simply dump its responsibilities onto schools and local taxpayers," state Sen. Terry Link, a Waukegan Democrat, said in his Daily Herald election questionnaire. "The teacher pension system should be part of a broader discussion about school funding, property taxes and fairness for all involved."
Suburban lawmakers' delicate answers are a reflection of the complex balance between trying to fix the state's biggest financial problem and wanting to protect the suburban schools they represent -- often among the best schools in the state.
State Rep. David Harris, an Arlington Heights Republican, has broken with a majority of his party to back having schools pay more. He says the proposal should be called the "school board member responsibility bill."
He says suburban teachers tend to generate the biggest pension costs for the state because they make the biggest salaries, and school boards should take responsibility for those costs.
Harris argues that school districts can afford the roughly 6 percent of payroll they might have to absorb because it would be phased in over a dozen years or more and school boards could take the costs into account when negotiating with teachers unions.
Schools "are concerned, don't get me wrong," Harris said, but he added, "It's not going to break their backs."
That's not how everyone in the suburbs sees it, and changing their minds could be difficult.
State Sen. Dan Kotowski, a Park Ridge Democrat, says the Illinois House should approve pension benefit cuts for state employees and lawmakers, leaving teachers for later.
Adding costs to schools, he says, translates into the potential for higher property taxes.
"People complain the most about their property taxes," said state Sen. John Millner, a Carol Stream Republican.
Millner is one of more than a dozen suburban lame ducks who don't have to face re-election again and therefore might be easier to persuade to support a compromise.
Lawmakers who might reconsider their positions could get some political cover from education reform group Stand For Children, which came out in support of the cost-shifting plan last week.
The group gave out hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign cash to both Republicans and Democrats in 2012, and lawmakers might feel better about voting for such a controversial measure if someone has their backs.
"We wouldn't support a cost shift if the state was flush with cash," said Stand for Children government affairs director Jessica Handy. "But they're not."
• Daily Herald Political Editor Kerry Lester contributed to this story.
Pensions: Lawmaker notes costs to schools would be phased in