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Lawmakers to offer new pension proposal

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SPRINGFIELD (AP) – A key lawmaker and a group of colleagues will offer new legislation Wednesday to fix the state’s crippling pension crisis and end bitter fighting over a multibillion-dollar issue that gets more expensive by the day.

Rep. Elaine Nekritz, a Democrat who chairs the House Pension Committee, will be joined by about a dozen lawmakers in announcing a proposal that would begin to bring down the state’s $95 billion pension liability by raising employee contributions, introducing a tiered retirement age and phasing in a plan to share costs with school districts.

At least two Republicans are expected to join the contingent backing the plan. But partisan divisions over the pension problem reared up again during the fall veto session Tuesday as two GOP lawmakers blasted Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn for his leadership on the state’s financial problems.

It was not immediately clear whether Quinn or the four legislative leaders would support the new proposal, though Brooke Anderson, a spokeswoman for the governor, called it “a welcome contribution.”

Steve Brown, a spokesman for House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, said he was not sure what conversations Nekritz has had with Madigan.

Illinois’ pension crisis is among the worst in the nation, but lawmakers have been unable to agree on sweeping legislation needed to fix it. Negotiations broke down last spring over a proposal to make the state’s school districts pick up their own employees’ pensions costs, and no progress was made at a later special session called by Quinn.

Nekritz would not comment on the details of the new proposal, described in a press advisory from her office as offering “a balanced plan to simultaneously bring state pension costs under control for the long term and provide retirement security for hundreds of thousands of state workers and teachers.”

But Rep. Mike Zalewski, another Democrat involved, said it would require employees to contribute 2 percent more to their own retirement funds. It also would create a tiered system for retirement age eligibility: Older workers would be able to retire at the same age at which they are currently eligible, while younger employees would have to work longer.

The proposal shifts some of the cost of teachers’ retirement contributions to school districts, but the shift would be phased in over time.

“I asked myself (when considering the proposal) ‘Is this something workers can live with?’” Zalewski said. “Ultimately, I’d say it is.”

Republicans and a few Democrats have opposed that cost shift in the past, saying local districts would have to raise property taxes in order to take on the added financial burden.

The plan being negotiated last spring from Quinn and Democratic legislative leaders had called for reducing the state’s annual pension costs by cutting pension benefits, despite union opposition. It also limited the 3 percent cost-of-living increase for retirees, compounded annually, to 3 percent or half the rate of inflation, whichever is lower. The increases would not be compounded.

Wednesday is the final day of the fall veto session, so any progress on pensions isn’t expected until the first week in January. That’s when the current General Assembly will reconvene for its final days before a new group of lawmakers is sworn in Jan. 9, creating a short window in which several dozen lame-duck legislators can vote without worrying about re-election.

Quinn has said he wants to get a deal on a pension fix by that date, and his office has said repeatedly that pension reform is his top priority. A spokesman said last week Quinn and his staff have been meeting with lawmakers to try to secure support, and the governor’s office recently unveiled a grassroots campaign to garner public support for reforms.

But Rep. Ed Sullivan Jr., R-Mundelein, and Rep. Mike Bost, R-Murphysboro, had strong words about the governor’s leadership Tuesday, as lawmakers took up a request to give Quinn two extra weeks to deliver his 2013 budget address.

State law says the governor must deliver a budget each year by the third Wednesday in February, but lawmakers gave Quinn an extension the past three years. Bost and Sullivan ripped Quinn for the most recent request, with Bost saying the governor should “do his job” and deliver an address on time.

Sullivan complained that Quinn has “ridiculed” the General Assembly for its handling of the pension situation. He said lawmakers need to see Quinn’s budget plan before they can tackle pensions.

“He has not shown leadership on this issue,” Sullivan said.

Rep. Daniel Burke, D-Chicago, defended Quinn, saying it’s understandable his office would want more time given the state’s dismal financial situation.

Anderson did not respond to a request for comment about the criticism.

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