Panel divided on proposed fix
SPRINGFIELD (AP) – Four Republicans want a pension crisis fix to be more far-reaching. One of six Democrats wants more concessions to unions.
With the Illinois Legislature’s fall veto session a week away, an Associated Press survey of a special 10-member committee tasked with finding a solution to the state’s enormous public pension shortfall found that half the members, all Democrats, support a recently proposed plan estimated to save about $138 billion. The other half – a key Democrat and all four Republicans – say they still have major concerns.
A partisan split is developing as Republicans – three of whom are running for higher office next year – are demanding more information on additional cost-cutting measures, which could take weeks.
“We know the Democrats can’t pass this on their own,” said Republican Sen. Bill Brady. “Unfortunately, I don’t see anything happening legislatively for at least 4 weeks at the earliest.”
But with the committee serving as a microcosm of the General Assembly and its struggle over the issue, a Democratic senator, Linda Holmes, also has yet to come on board.
By law, the full Legislature cannot consider the emerging proposal unless it is signed by six of the committee’s 10 members. Here is a breakdown of where committee members stand:
Sen. Kwame Raoul, Chicago: Raoul, the committee chairman, who considered a campaign for governor, says he remains optimistic a plan can be brought for a vote in the coming weeks.
Last spring he supported a Senate-backed plan that would have given retirees an option of the benefits received during retirement, saving $58 billion according to Senate estimates. He now is pushing the $138 billion savings plan. It includes a provision that would reduce a current 3 percent annual compounded cost-of-living adjustment in retirement benefits to half the rate of inflation and a reduction in employee contributions by one percent – a concession to state employees for other sacrifices.
He said he isn’t surprised the committee’s work has become more tense after 4 months.
“We’ve come to a difficult point in this negotiation,” he said.
Sen. Linda Holmes, Aurora
Holmes, a co-sponsor of the Senate plan, told the AP she’d “have a hard time” voting for the $138 billion framework.
Like many Democrats, she believes that it would be unfair to punish state employees who have paid their dues over the years, just because the state has not made prompt payments to fund the pension system. State employee unions adamantly oppose the new plan.
“I’ve always been true to the fact I want the unions on board,” Holmes said. “This mess was not of their causing ... I’m still sort of on that page.”
Rep. Elaine Nekritz, Northbrook
Nekritz, an assistant House majority leader, has become increasingly hesitant to predict when a vote might be called.
“It’s started to feel a little bit more partisan to me,” she said.
Nekritz said she supports the latest proposal because it brings down the amount of state funds spent on pensions each year. Because the deal contains both savings and concessions for union employees, she calls it “a compromise that can pass both chambers.”
Sen. Daniel Biss, Evanston
Biss, a mathematician by trade, says the committee’s work is so close to a deal that a bill should be ready by the veto session.
He said the committee’s latest proposal is “in a ballpark I can be comfortable with.”
“Now that we’re within spitting distance, everyone has to look inside themselves and say, can I get to that?” he said. “It’s an emotionally and politically and culturally difficult move that we made.”
Rep. Mike Zalewski, Riverside
Zalewski said he supports the proposal, which he calls “a sustaining model for how we deal with pension reform.” Previously, he had endorsed a more conservative House plan projected to save $167 billion.
He says the time to act is now, but it is important to address Republican concerns for the sake of bipartisanship.
“It would make no sense after coming this far for any of the parties to say we can’t make a deal,” he said.
Rep. Art Turner, Chicago
Turner supports the framework, calling the proposal a “good compromise” between previous plans. But he said he’s open to considering Republican additions.
“Anything that will bring everyone to the table we’re willing to consider,” he said.
Sen. Bill Brady, Bloomington
Brady, one of four 2014 GOP gubernatorial contenders, said the Democrats’ proposal doesn’t contain significant enough reforms for him to back at this point.
“We came together as Republicans and made a counter offer that we think would be sustainable,” Brady said.
The list of GOP demands includes raising the retirement age, giving employees the option of moving to a 401k-style plan, and increasing employee contributions and cost-of-living adjustments. They have requested savings estimates from the state’s various retirement funds.
Rep. Jil Tracy, Quincy
Tracy, who is campaigning for lieutenant governor as Sen. Kirk Dillard’s running mate, says the proposed committee plan “wasn’t going where I needed it to be.” Tracy acknowledges a need for urgency, but said she wants a guarantee that future Legislatures will meet required payments.
“I’m willing to keep at the table so we keep doing this,” she said. “But it has to be something that’s solvent and sustainable.”
Rep. Darlene Senger, Naperville
Senger, who is making a bid for Congress, said she was among those who introduced the list of additional Republican demands. She said she is concerned that the percentage of the proposed funds to meet pension obligations each year is too high.
“We had suggestions out there before that made more sense,” she said.
Sen. Matt Murphy, Palatine
Murphy, a deputy Republican leader, called the latest plan “back-loaded in its current form” because it relies on future lawmakers keeping promises. But he declined to say outright whether he would vote for it or not.
“Past general assemblies’ unwillingness to do that is exactly what got us here in the first place,” Murphy said. “We only get one bite at this apple.”