Unions target Senate Dems in pension reform battle
SPRINGFIELD -- Up against a determined effort to curtail state employees' retirement benefits, Illinois' unions are staging an all-out campaign to thwart approval of a breakthrough proposal to solve the state's $100 billion pension crisis, specifically targeting a small contingent of moderate Senate Democrats.
The effort includes plans to flood lawmakers' offices with retirees this week as they return to the Capitol beginning Monday, in addition to an ongoing phone campaign aimed at members of both the House and Senate.
On the opposing side, all four Illinois legislative leaders and Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn are engaged in an equally feverish campaign to secure support for the $160 billion savings plan, which could be called for a vote Tuesday in a special legislative session. Union leaders say they're focusing on rank-and-file lawmakers after being ignored by state leaders who announced the compromise deal last week.
Michael Carrigan, president of the Illinois AFL-CIO, said 25 "persuadable" lawmakers will be the subject of the most intense lobbying efforts. Carrigan declined to disclose names to The Associated Press, but said 8 to 10 lawmakers are targeted in the Senate and another 15 to 17 in the House.
"We're certainly going to apply every ounce of energy that we can to prevent the passage of legal theft of lifetime savings," said Dan Montgomery, president of the Illinois Federation of Teachers, another member of the We Are One Illinois union coalition fighting pension reforms.
With the 2014 campaigns underway, it is not an argument lawmakers can ignore. In the 2010 election cycle -- when Illinois last had a governor's race and several other statewide contests on the ballot -- public sector unions donated nearly $12 million to various candidates, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics. In 2012, they contributed $7.4 million to races for Illinois House and Senate and for judicial contests.
The unions also are able to quickly mobilize forces to work for -- or against -- a candidate or issue, with local chapters throughout the state and a well-tuned system for pushing information out to members.
Crucial to the new plan's passage or failure this week are Democratic senators from moderate swing districts where election opponents can hammer them for inaction on pension reform or for being too tough on state employees. The 59-member Senate is seen as more union-friendly than the House; last spring it voted down a House-backed plan that contained a number of similar cost-cutting measures as the new proposal.
Instead, the Senate approved a reform bill more sympathetic to state employees and backed by the unions, but with less cost-savings. House Speaker Michael Madigan, also a Chicago Democrat, never called it for a vote in his chamber, creating resentment among the unions.
State Sen. Dan Kotowski, of Park Ridge, is one of the lawmakers who voted against the earlier more stringent, House-backed plan, yet he also stresses the urgent need to act. He says he has been conferring with the unions.
"I'm keeping an open mind," Kotowski said on Friday.
State Sen. Michael Noland of Elgin said it will be a difficult decision since he represents a notably independent voting district he calls "as purple as it gets."
"At this point," Noland said, "I'm waiting to hear from my constituents who happen to be stakeholders and those who are not who are coming to understand the magnitude of what this means."
The $160 billion savings proposal, detailed for lawmakers Friday, aims to close the enormous shortfall in the state's five pension systems by 2044. To accomplish that, the retirement age for workers age 45 and under would be pushed back on a sliding scale. Automatic, annually compounded 3 percent cost-of-living increases for retirees -- considered to be the biggest driver of the state's pension costs -- would be replaced with smaller annual adjustments for the highest earners. Some workers would have the option of freezing their pension and starting a 401(k)-style defined contribution plan.
The pension shortfall, considered the nation's worst-funded, developed after lawmakers short-changed state retirement systems for years. The gap has led to millions of dollars being diverted from education and social programs, and repeated drops in the state's important credit rating.
Asked about ignoring the unions in reform talks, state Rep. Elaine Nekritz, a Northbrook Democrat and top pensions negotiator, said it has been clear that union officials would "not consider anything" but the original Senate proposal. "There didn't seem to be a lot of benefit in trying to have a dialogue," Nekritz said.
A Cullerton spokesman, Ron Holmes, says the Senate president has been briefing union leaders and is "aware of their desires." But he said Cullerton now is pushing "a compromise that might be palatable" for the entire General Assembly, and is personally calling lawmakers to support the plan.
Thirty votes are needed for passage in the Senate. Cullerton says he will work to secure 18 votes, if Senate Republican Leader Christine Radogno of Lemont can get 12 from her caucus. Senate Republican leaders have committed to putting up as many yes votes as possible.
If the plan does pass, union officials say they're prepared to take the battle further.
"Then we will absolutely seek justice in the courts," Montgomery said.