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Seniors: Protect benefits already earned by elders

STERLING – The debates over the pension crisis in Springfield catch the attention of Donna Willhite, an 84-year-old who receives a state pension.

In 1993, she retired from the Jack Mabley Developmental Center in Dixon, a state institution that serves the developmentally disabled. She supports the compounded 3 percent increases retirees get.

“If they stop our increases, it would not be fair,” she said during lunch Monday at the Whiteside County Senior Center in Sterling.

On Wednesday, the Legislature returns to Springfield for a special session to deal with the pension problem. But with the Senate and House wide apart on how to conquer nearly $100 billion in pension debt, few expect anything to happen.

Leora Givens, 80, who was sitting with Willhite at lunch, was a bank employee for 32 years. She defends the pensions that people like Willhite get.

“They [politicians] need to leave us alone,” Givens said. “We need that money.”

At another table, Ernie Topping, 81, called for “drastic reductions” to pensions, but he said such changes should grandfather in those who already have earned their benefits.

“Morally, they earned that money,” he said.

Frank Fisher, 81, said the state should curtail the practice known as double-dipping, which is when someone receives a pension while drawing a salary from another employer (or possibly the same one).

“They’re entitled to their pensions, but they’re gaming the system,” Fisher said.

He, like Topping, said the state should protect the pensions of those already receiving them.

During the legislative session that ended last month, House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, passed a bill in his chamber that would have required workers to contribute more to the pension system, cut benefits, and raise the retirement age for younger workers.

Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago, sponsored another bill to deal with the pension crisis, which passed the Senate by a wide margin.

His bill would have given workers and retirees choices for their benefits. For instance, they could choose between getting health insurance or 3 percent cost-of-living increases compounded every year.

The House measure would have cut pension debt three times more than the one backed by Cullerton. However, its opponents contend it violates the state constitution, which bans the diminishing of public workers’ retirement benefits. Defenders, however, say the constitutional provision only applies to what is already earned, not changes made going forward.

Sen. Tim Bivins, R-Dixon, said he doubted anything would happen during the special session. 

Asked for his solutions, the senator said he proposed giving state employees, including General Assembly members, the right to opt out of pension systems. He said employees hired since 2011, whose pension benefits aren’t as generous, may consider opting out, saving the state money. 

“This is not a total solution,” he said. 

Bivins voted against both the Madigan and Cullerton bills. 

Sen. Mike Jacobs, D-East Moline, backed Madigan’s bill and voted against Cullerton’s. He disputed arguments that the Senate rejected the House measure because it wanted to avoid the appearance of Madigan running the Senate.

“That’s so untrue,” said Jacobs, who represents Whiteside County. “He [Cullerton] allows us to have our own minds in the Senate. Why won’t the speaker allow his members to vote on the bill that overwhelmingly passed in the Senate?”

He said he was “chagrined” with Gov. Pat Quinn for calling a special session to deal with the pension crisis without apparently finding a resolution beforehand.

“He [Quinn] had better have something worked out,” Jacobs said. “I would encourage the leadership to get its act together or it will be a long, hot summer. I pray that something happens.”

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