Rauner backs pension plan that offers choice, with caveat

 
 
Updated 1/22/2016 4:58 AM
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  • Gov. Bruce Rauner Thursday speaks in favor of a pension proposal giving public workers a choice of reduced benefits.

    Gov. Bruce Rauner Thursday speaks in favor of a pension proposal giving public workers a choice of reduced benefits. Courtesy OF Chicago Sun-Times

  • Gov. Bruce Rauner, with Sen. Christine Radogno, expresses support Thursday for a pension proposal giving public workers a choice of reduced benefits.

    Gov. Bruce Rauner, with Sen. Christine Radogno, expresses support Thursday for a pension proposal giving public workers a choice of reduced benefits. Courtesy of Chicago Sun-Times

  • Gov. Bruce Rauner Thursday speaks in favor of a pension proposal giving public workers a choice of reduced benefits.

    Gov. Bruce Rauner Thursday speaks in favor of a pension proposal giving public workers a choice of reduced benefits. Courtesy of Chicago Sun-Times

  • Gov. Bruce Rauner, right, appears with Sen. Christine Radogno and Rep. Jim Durkin Thursday to support a pension proposal giving public workers a choice of reduced benefits.

    Gov. Bruce Rauner, right, appears with Sen. Christine Radogno and Rep. Jim Durkin Thursday to support a pension proposal giving public workers a choice of reduced benefits. Courtesy of Chicago Sun-Times

  • Gov. Bruce Rauner backed a new pension proposal.

      Gov. Bruce Rauner backed a new pension proposal. Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner's announcement Thursday that he supported a top Democrat's proposal to cut pension benefits came with one major departure over collective bargaining -- and a quick rebuttal.

Rauner said he wanted to sign onto Senate President John Cullerton's proposal to give teachers, state employees and lawmakers a choice: They could either keep counting future pay increases toward their eventual pension sizes and have their benefits grow slower in retirement. Or, they could stop having their raises count toward their pension calculations and keep the faster-growing benefits.

To make sure the plan could withstand a constitutional challenge, Rauner said, pay raises couldn't be part of collective bargaining discussions because workers would have to make a binding choice about their pension future.

"Let's bring it back," Rauner said of Cullerton's plan. "Let's vote on it. And let's get it done."

Cullerton quickly distanced himself from Rauner's proposal.

"We apparently still have a fundamental disagreement over the role of collective bargaining in this process, in the sense that I think collective bargaining should continue to exist and the governor does not," Cullerton said in a statement.

Later, the governor's office sought to downplay the conflict.

"Perhaps the governor was not as precise in his word selection as the Democrats would have liked," a statement released late Thursday said.

Rauner's office said he agrees with Cullerton that the only collective bargaining changes would be "modest ones that ensure that employers shall not be required to bargain over compensation or benefits affected by President Cullerton's changes."

An Illinois Supreme Court ruling striking down a different pension-cutting proposal last year looms over any new one, but both Cullerton and Rauner have said offering employees a choice could get around that legal hurdle. Rauner said his lawyers and Cullerton's have been talking closely for weeks despite Thursday's dispute.

The Thursday back-and-forth that followed Rauner's announcement is another chapter in the yearslong bipartisan battle over pension benefits in Illinois.

And the latest disagreement comes as Rauner and top Democrats continue to feud over a state budget that was supposed to be complete July 1. The governor says the pension plan could save $1 billion per year at a time when the state is running a deficit.

But some of the main budget sticking points have been Rauner's push for pro-business proposals that Democrats have criticized as anti-union.

Rauner took to task his top budget foil House Speaker Michael Madigan for not offering a new retirement benefits proposal. Madigan said he doesn't back Rauner's idea.

Union leaders similarly criticized Rauner, arguing a choice isn't constitutional if it's between two options that cut benefits.

"Slashing retirement security by forcing workers to choose between two diminished options is clearly unconstitutional," a statement from the We Are One Illinois coalition of union leaders said.

Rauner is set to give a State of the State address Wednesday.

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