Pension reform bill takes shape in Illinois House

Posted: Jan. 7, 2013 10:18 am Updated: Jan. 28, 2013 11:15 am

Herald-Whig Senior Writer

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. -- Pension reforms that promise to have Illinois retirement systems 100 percent funded by 2043 will be considered in a lame-duck House committee Monday.

"It's a lot to come together in two days, and right now it's definitely a work in progress," said Rep. Jil Tracy, R-Quincy.

Gov. Pat Quinn and House Minority Leader Tom Cross, R-Oswego, are backing the plan to freeze cost-of-living increases on all retirees until they reach age 67. Increases would then be applied only to the first $25,000 of a retiree's pension.

In addition, the bill sponsored by Rep. Elaine Nekritz, D-Northbrook, calls for most state employees to contribute an additional 2 percent of their salary toward pensions.

"We've been working together, we certainly want to get something moving," said Sara Wojcicki Jimenez, spokeswoman for Cross, R-Oswego. "But like anything, this is pretty huge magnitude. We've got to make sure that we have a good chance to take a look at it."

Nekritz believes her plan will get out of the Personnel and Pensions Committee that meets starting at noon. The path from there is less certain.

While Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, wants to see pension reforms passed, he has yet to publicly commit to Nekritz's bill. Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago, has called for previously passed Senate bills to be used as a basis for the pension fix.

Tracy said the effort to adjust funding in the worst-in-the-nation pension system is big enough it's hard to tell where opposition might arise.

"We've heard the mayor of Chicago wants the Chicago Public Schools in it. I don't know if that will help it or hurt it" in regards to votes from Chicago area legislators, Tracy said.

Nekritz said the issue has "consensus among the leaders of the House."

Quinn -- who had set a Wednesday deadline for pension legislation -- had been working with Nekritz on the bill, said Quinn's spokeswoman, Brooke Anderson.

"We're encouraged by the momentum to fix a problem that urgently needs to be fixed," she said.

Word of the tentative agreement emerged Sunday when the House reconvened for the final days of the current General Assembly, but made little headway on other issues, including an assault weapons ban.

The amended pension bill would require the state to fully fund its portion of pensions under threat of legal action by the pension accounts' administrators.

That a vital element for hundreds of thousands of workers and retirees who have been forced to pay their share over the years as they watched lawmakers skip payments that led to the huge shortfall.

Quinn says the deficit grows by $17 million a day. The piling debt has hurt the state's credit rating, limiting its ability to borrow. It also has eaten up more and more money for education and other public services.

Various plans for bumped-up contributions and less-generous benefits for current employees, raising the retirement age and reducing cost-of-living adjustments for retirees, have been floated in the past year. But the "cost shift" of the employer portion of teachers' pensions from the state to school districts has stymied attention.

Democratic Senate President John Cullerton said he wants lawmakers to pass a more modest alternative that the Senate adopted last spring. That proposal affects only a portion of the workers and retirees but would be a starting point for expansion, and Cullerton is concerned that more ambitious efforts could be unconstitutional.


The Associated Press provided information for this story.