Ill. Senate rejects limits on closing facilities
SPRINGFIELD, (AP) – Gov. Pat Quinn’s push for painful cuts in state spending survived two legislative tests Wednesday as lawmakers voted to end a health care benefit for retirees and rejected efforts to limit his power to close prisons and other government facilities.
The Illinois House narrowly agreed to stop providing free health insurance for longtime state employees once they retire. Quinn and House Speaker Michael Madigan want to end the free insurance as part of the effort to cut costly retirement benefits for public employees.
Madigan said making retirees pay for their health insurance isn’t pleasant but it’s less painful than many of the other budget decisions awaiting lawmakers.
“If we can’t do this, what in the world are we going to be able to do?” the Chicago Democrat said.
In the Senate, legislation barring Quinn from closing government facilities without the General Assembly’s approval fell one vote short of passing.
The Democratic governor plans to shutter a variety of prisons, halfway houses, developmental centers and mental institutions to reduce spending. That has outraged employees who would lose their jobs and communities facing economic turmoil from the closures.
Sen. Gary Forby, D-Benton, said the governor alone should not be able to make such important decisions.
“The governor is not a king. He’s only one person,” Forby said.
The vote on his legislation was 29-23 with seven senators skipping the roll call or voting “present.” It needed 30 votes to pass.
Opponents said it would be a mistake to tie the governor’s hands during a budget crisis and would amount to unconstitutional interference with the executive branch.
Both votes disappointed the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. The union’s deputy director in Illinois, Roberta Lynch, was particularly outspoken on the House vote to start charging health insurance premiums for people who thought that was one expense they wouldn’t face in retirement.
Lynch called it “shocking” and a serious blow to people on fixed incomes. “This kind of radical, sweeping approach – we don’t think that’s the way to operate,” she said.
Together, Wednesday’s House and Senate actions suggest that legislators accept, at least for now, the view that spending must be cut if Illinois wants to restore its budget to health.
Quinn, joined by the House speaker and Senate president, argues that retirement and Medicaid costs are growing so fast that state revenues can’t keep up. They take up so much of the state’s money that less and less is available for schools, parks, public safety and other services, he said, and the Medicaid program that serves 2.7 million people is on the verge of collapse.
He proposes filling a $2.7 billion hole in the Medicaid program by cutting services for the poor and disabled, reducing payments to doctors and hospitals, and raising cigarette taxes by $1 a pack.
The state’s annual pension payment could be controlled by making government employees work longer before retiring, putting more of their salaries into pension funds and giving them smaller cost-of-living increases after retirement, Quinn said. He proposes using the threat of losing health benefits to pressure employees into going along with the pension cuts.
Right now, the amount that retirees pay for health insurance depends on how long they worked for the state. Those who worked 20 years or more don’t pay any premium at all, although they do have co-pays and deductibles.
The House voted 74-43 to end that policy and let a state agency decide what premium retirees will pay, based on retirees’ length of service and ability to pay. The measure now goes to the Senate.
Retiree health care costs $800 million, according to the Department of Central Management Services, and employee premiums cover only 3 percent of that. About 78,000 state retirees don’t pay any premium.
Some legislators said it would be unfair to suddenly yank away a benefit that employees have factored into their retirement plans.
“They feel that the state has sold them out,” said Rep. Robert Pritchard, R-Hinckley.