Special session a dud; no pension reform
House rejects pension cuts for lawmakers
|Illinois Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie, D-Chicago, argues pension legislation during Friday's special session at the Illinois State Capitol in Springfield. (AP)|
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SPRINGFIELD (AP) – Illinois legislators adjourned their special session Friday without making any progress on the state's massive pension crisis, not even passage of a largely symbolic measure to start the overhaul by cutting their own benefits.
When it became clear there would be no action on a broad plan to reduce pension costs, Democrats proposed a bill that would apply only to legislators and some of their staff. It was supposed to slow the growth in pensions for current legislators and end pensions entirely for all future legislators.
The proposal's backers said it would start the process and demonstrate that legislators are willing to share the financial pain. Republicans called it political cover for the Legislature's failure to address the real problem.
The idea got only 54 votes when it was added to an existing bill, far short of the 60 needed to send legislation to the Senate. So the sponsor didn't bother holding a final vote.
Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn called legislators into special session Friday to address pensions. But deep policy differences between Democrats and Republicans meant nothing could be achieved on an issue that both sides say is urgent. Cutting legislative benefits would keep lawmakers from going home completely empty-handed.
For years, the state has failed to contribute enough money to the retirement systems for state employees, university staff, elected officials and downstate and suburban Chicago teachers. That, combined with a poor economy, has left the systems about $85 billion short. Finding money each year to reduce that gap is eating up state government's limited funds, leaving little for such things as education, human services and prisons.
State leaders want to reduce annual payments by cutting benefits. Future retirees would see their pensions grow more slowly, instead of the current 3 percent increase compounded annually. Employees who reject that offer would lose their state-subsidized health insurance and not get any future raises included when their pension checks are calculated.
But the two parties are split on what to do about teachers. Democrats want downstate and suburban Chicago school districts to start paying the employers' share of pension costs for teachers, instead of having the state pay. Republicans object, predicting major property tax increases if that were to happen.
Quinn met with legislative leaders Friday morning to repeat his message about the importance of compromise. But everyone, including Quinn, stuck to their basic positions. Republicans emerged from the meeting saying nothing had changed.
House Minority Leader Tom Cross and Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno said Democrats continue to insist on shifting pension costs to schools or, as a compromise, passing legislation that would leave teachers out of any pension changes for now. Republicans reject both approaches.
"The only thing that's clear is that Democrats do not want to do comprehensive reform," said Radogno, R-Lemont. "We don't know what they're going to do."
Democratic leaders did not speak to reporters after the meeting ended.
Pension legislation has been stalled since the end of May, when the General Assembly ended amid bitter accusations and a last-minute decision not to call the chief proposal for a vote. Since then, Quinn has met occasionally with legislative leaders and released occasional reports on the issue, but there is no sign that a breakthrough is near.
Public employees' unions vigorously oppose pension cuts as both unconstitutional and unfair to workers who, unlike the state, have always made contributions to the pension systems. But the idea seems to have widespread support at the Statehouse.
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