Editorial: Is a public pension compromise at hand?

  • Illinois Senate President John Cullerton is supporting a public pension reform proposal that would reduce annual cost-of-living adjustments.

    Illinois Senate President John Cullerton is supporting a public pension reform proposal that would reduce annual cost-of-living adjustments.

The Daily Herald Editorial Board
Posted10/6/2013 5:00 AM

There was a bit of a buzz at the end of last week that at long last a compromise solution was at hand to the public pension crisis that looms over Illinois.

"We're inside the 10-yard line," state Sen. Matt Murphy of Palatine said, "and now it's a question of if we can punch it in."


State Rep. Elaine Nekritz of Northbrook added, "We're so close that we just need to agree to a middle ground and be done."

Those bits of optimism, while encouraging, are probably too strong.

There has been movement, to be sure. Senate President John Cullerton has given his support to a proposal from Democratic members of a special pension task force, That proposal shows significant progress from the previous Senate measure, a collaboration with the public employee unions that had offered little in the way of real pension reform.

The new proposal would limit the cost-of-living adjustments in public pensions to half the rate of inflation, a significant savings over the COLAs that are currently built into the system and considered by many experts to be the primary reason the current program is not financially sustainable.

Make no mistake about it. That is a significant change in Cullerton's position.

Whereas the old Senate measure was estimated to save the program $58 billion over 30 years, the new proposal would increase that savings to $138 billion, according to The Associated Press. Not as much as the $163 billion that last spring's House plan would have saved, but considerably closer to it.

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Just as clearly, disagreements remain. House Speaker Michael Madigan has yet to indicate where he stands. It is by no means clear whether there would be defections among the ranks of Senate Democrats. Early indications are that leaders of the biggest state employee union are staunchly opposed.

Beyond that, even with the big adjustment in the COLA, many Republicans feel the compromise still falls short.

We agree in principle with the GOP's concern that the compromise would not increase the age for pension eligibility. In general, retirement age for public employees is 10 years or more earlier than for those in the private sector, and that is both inequitable and unaffordable.

But most of the other issues involved in the bickering should be viewed as negotiating points -- that to get something meaningful done, some roadblocks to agreement will have to be eliminated.

Do Republicans who push a 401(k) idea have a case? Well, considering practices in the private sector, maybe so. But the reality is that idea is politically impractical, so why push it?

It clearly is too soon to say that a compromise solution is at hand.

But this new proposal offers an intriguing opportunity for compromise, and we encourage all sides to fully explore it.

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