Pension tension builds in House

2012-05-30T01:00:00Z 2012-05-30T08:04:08Z Pension tension builds in HouseBy KURT ERICKSON -- H&R Springfield Bureau Chief Herald-Review.com

SPRINGFIELD — With time ticking down on the spring legislative session, a Democrat-led plan to overhaul state employee pensions ran aground Tuesday in the Illinois House.

A proposal that would shift state pension costs to suburban and downstate school districts became the focal point of outbursts by Republicans and was not called for a vote.

State Rep. Mike Bost, R-Murphysboro, expressed outrage on the House floor when Democrats ignored Republican attempts to remove school districts from the cost-shifting plan over concerns that it could result in local property tax hikes.

“You should be ashamed of yourselves,” Bost screamed as he tossed copies of the bill from his seat on the floor. “Enough! When’s it gonna stop?”

House Minority Leader Tom Cross, R-Oswego, accused House Speaker Michael Madigan — a member of the General Assembly since 1971 — of not negotiating in good faith and being the root of many of the state’s financial problems.

“For the last 40 years, you have had your fingerprints on the mess we have today,” Cross said.

Madigan, D-Chicago, didn’t take the bait as lawmakers worked toward a midnight Thursday adjournment date with major issues such as pensions and the budget still unresolved.

“We have several major issues to be resolved before we end this session. I don’t plan to issue any threats. I don’t plan to issue any kind of statements which are designed to be derogatory toward anybody,” Madigan said.

Emotions were running high after a House panel voted 9-5 to endorse the pension plan, which is designed to begin chipping away at an unfunded pension liability of $83 billion.

The measure appeared poised to be voted on by the full House on Tuesday, but Democrats who control the chamber adjourned for the day in the mid-afternoon. A vote still could come today. The Senate also could float a pension fix and try to ram it through before the end of the session.

Supporters had expressed hope that a vote would come soon.

“We are on the verge of historic reform in Springfield. With this change, we can move away from being financial laughingstocks,” said state Rep. Elaine Nekritz, D-Northbrook, who helped negotiate the package. “I feel confident that the pain we’re inflicting today will ease in the days ahead.“

The proposal would affect teachers, lawmakers, prison guards, university employees and current retirees. It would not affect judges. It would not require workers to make larger contributions to their pensions, nor would they be required to work until age 67, as Gov. Pat Quinn had suggested.

But, schools, universities and community colleges would have to start paying a larger share of employee pension costs. And, retirees would receive smaller cost-of-living increases or have to give up their state-paid health insurance premiums.

Opponents said shifting the state’s costs would lead to higher property tax bills and higher college tuition costs.

“The cost shift is going to be a problem,” said Ben Schwarm of the Illinois Association of School Boards.

Democratic leaders say the cost shift is fair because Chicago property taxpayers pay into the retirement fund for Chicago public schools, while the retirement fund for downstate teachers is partially financed by the state.

Union groups made it clear the changes would be challenged in court.

“It is simply not fair to the employees to ask them to pay for the mistakes of others. Our members have paid each and every paycheck, every dime they’ve been required to pay, they’ve done that,” said Henry Bayer, executive director of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 31.

Madigan said the proposal will ensure the currently underfunded systems are 100 percent funded by 2043.

“The reforms in this package, coupled with the new funding formula, should result in significant savings,” Madigan said.

James Bachman, chief of the Illinois Retired Teachers Association, said the changes will cause financial “calamity” for his members.

“Retired teachers fulfilled each and every requirement of them. In return for their services in the field of education, they were given a modest salary and the promise of security when they retired,” Bachman said.

The legislation is Senate Bill 1673.

kurt.erickson@lee.net|782-4043

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