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On pensions, Bivins and GOP far apart

Sen. Tim Bivins, R-Dixon, voted with many of his fellow Senate Republicans this week against a pension bill sponsored by Democratic Senate President John Cullerton of Chicago. The measure passed 40-16.

Bivins had a different reason for his no vote.

The other Republicans argued the bill didn't go far enough to reduce the state's seemingly insurmountable pension debt.

Bivins, however, said he leaned toward supporting Cullerton's bill but decided against doing so because the Senate leader failed to include the teacher retirees association at the table.

The unions supported Cullerton's plan, which involves giving workers and retirees choices for their benefits. For instance, they could choose between getting 3 percent cost-of-living increases compounded annually or health insurance.

Bivins, a former Lee County sheriff who makes $77,256 a year from his government pension, wanted a voice for the retirees.

"My position has been consistent from the beginning, that the state constitution – whether we agree with it or not – says that you cannot diminish those benefits," Bivins said in a news release. "I also had concerns about this proposal because retired teachers were not part of the discussion in putting it together, and they are planning on filing a lawsuit if this bill passes both chambers."

Bivins is right about the state constitution. Unions read that language to mean that the terms of pensions should not change after a public employee's career starts. Others, including top law firms, say the provision bars the state from removing pension benefits employees have already received, but changes can be made going forward.

Some Senate Republicans argue the constitutionality should be left to the courts.

"It's not our job to be the judiciary," Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno, R-Lemont, said during a Senate debate.

Sen. Matt Murphy, R-Palatine, said the bill didn't do enough.

"We will be back here reliving this nightmare," he told the Senate.

Two Democrats, Daniel Biss of Evanston and Heather Steans of Chicago, joined the dissenters. But they agreed with many of the Republicans: More needed to be done to curtail pensions.

Most of the dissenters favored Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan's much more ambitious pension bill, which passed the House last week. It would require workers to contribute more, cut benefits, and raise the retirement age for younger workers.

Joining the House majority was Rep. Tom Demmer, R-Dixon. On the biggest issue of this year's legislative session, the two Dixon GOP lawmakers are far apart. And so are the Senate and House.

Will our leaders find a solution soon?

David Giuliani is a reporter for Sauk Valley Media. He can be reached at dgiuliani@saukvalley or at 800-798-4085, ext. 525. 

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