SPRINGFIELD — The state’s top Democrat slammed the door Wednesday on a bid by Big Labor to take charge of a new round of talks over public employee pension reform.
In a sharply worded letter, House Speaker Michael Madigan said he didn’t feel a meeting with a coalition of unions representing teachers, prison guards and university workers would be worthwhile at this point in the contentious debate over how to rein in the rising costs of employment retirement programs.
The union had sought to hold a so-called “pension summit” in Burr Ridge next month, calling it an “opportunity to get back to work” on a problem that Illinois leaders have been unable to resolve for decades.
Illinois’ five pension systems are a combined $97 billion out of whack, forcing the state to spend more money on pensions and less on education, social services and law enforcement.
The inability to reach an agreement on how to control pension costs during the recent lame duck legislative session resulted in a downgrade last week in the state’s credit rating. Citing a fear of increased borrowing costs, the Quinn administration canceled the sale of $500 million in bonds Wednesday.
The Chicago Democrat refuted claims by the unions that they haven’t been included in talks that date back more than two years.
“In my view, the positions of organized labor were taken into account during the 2012 legislative session. I recall no fewer than eight high-level meetings that took place with labor, legislative leaders and the governor. At that time, I felt there was little willingness from representatives of labor to draft a comprehensive, common-sense solution,” Madigan wrote.
In the letter, which was addressed to Illinois AFL-CIO President Michael Carrigan of Decatur, the speaker also suggested a recent pension fix floated by the labor organizations was unrealistic.
The union coalition proposed having rank-and-file members pay 2 percent more of their salaries toward retirement as long as none of their benefits were reduced. Any additional costs would be paid by the state through a series of corporate tax hikes, some of which have previously failed to garner support in the General Assembly.
“It is time for labor to come to the table with an honest proposal that recognizes the state’s serious fiscal condition and puts government employees on par with those in the private sector relative to a benefits package,” Madigan wrote.
The speaker also scolded the unions for taking a hard line in negotiations, saying Illinois residents have been making sacrifices in recent years by paying higher income taxes and facing reduced state spending in many areas.
“To date, we have received no cooperation from the labor unions representing state employees on addressing these challenges,” Madigan noted. “In fact, these unions often have been strongly opposed to any attempt to solve the problem.”
In a written response to Madigan, Carrigan wrote that Illinoisans want the unions to be at the negotiating table.
“A pension-funding solution that is constitutional, sustainable and fair requires openness and dialogue from all parties,” Carrigan noted.