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Local lawmakers divided on reform

Bill passes House; Senate fate uncertain

Local legislators split Thursday over House Speaker Michael Madigan’s proposed pension plan.

But not along the political lines you might expect.

Rep. Tom Demmer, R-Dixon, voted for the Democratic speaker’s proposal, while Rep. Mike Smiddy, D-Hillsdale, who represents Whiteside County, did not.

The measure passed 62-51. It would scale back cost-of-living increases for retirees, require more contributions from employees, and raise the retirement age for younger workers.

Public labor unions say the state constitution bars the state from diminishing employees’ pension benefits. However, reform proponents say the constitutional provision does not apply to benefits going forward.

Demmer said the proposal is not ideal, but something must be done to reduce the state’s growing pension debt.

“The funding that we have to dedicate to pensions every year is crowding out funding for essential state services,” Demmer said. “We have $100 billion in unfunded pension liability. It’s putting pressure on the state’s credit rating.”

Smiddy said Madigan’s reform would probably be deemed unconstitutional.

“We’ll be kicking the can down the road,” he said. “We should be sitting down with all the players involved to get a constitutional plan.”

The Madigan bill, backed by Republican House Leader Tom Cross, now goes to the Senate, where its future is uncertain.

The Sauk Valley’s two state senators, Tim Bivins, R-Dixon, and Mike Jacobs, D-East Moline, aren’t on board with Madigan’s plan.

“It’s a good start,” said Jacobs, who represents Whiteside County. “In the Senate, we’re trying to work with all parties, not to shut anyone out. The [Madigan] bill doesn’t listen to the people affected, all the retirees and those who have paid into the system.”

He said the pension system is maybe “too rich” and needs to be cut back. At the same time, he said, benefits are important for public workers.

“If you’re not going to give them health care or a pension, why would anyone go into public service?” Jacobs said. “People in public service generally get less. That’s not as much the case now because of the economy.”

Bivins said he is open to constitutional pension reform, but he hasn’t looked at the Madigan plan yet.

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