Thursday, October 27, 2011

House minority leader says Republicans are ready to pass pension reform

By Jamey Dunn

House Minority Leader Tom Cross said today that he has the Republican votes needed to pass a plan to reduce pension benefits for most state employees, but a teachers' union claims there is not enough support  from lawmakers to pass the legislation.

Cross said he and House Speaker Michael Madigan agreed that each of them would find 30 votes for  Senate Bill 512 within their respective caucuses. The two House leaders have partnered on pension reform talks that took place while the legislature was out for the summer. Cross said today that he has the votes on the Republican side. “We’ve got our votes ready to go. The bill itself is still being finalized. It’s a very complicated bill, so it should be ready this week.”

Cross said it is up to Madigan whether the bill is called for a vote when lawmakers return in November for the last week of the veto session. “We want to have a bill ready, and we want to be prepared on our side, and that’s what we’re doing.”

He added: “This is a priority. We need to do it.”

Cross' legislation would allow employees to keep all the benefits they previously earned. Under the bill, they would have to opt to pay more for their benefits, choose to participate in a reduced-benefit plan that was enacted for employees hired after Jan. 1 of this year or move into a plan similar to a 401(k).

Steve Brown, Madigan’s spokesperson, said Democrats are waiting to see Cross’ changes to the bill. “An accurate view of the situation from our side is the Cross staff has said there is another amendment to the bill. … That’s where we’ve been all week.” ” Brown said once lawmakers get a chance to see the review, Democratic leadership will begin polling them to see if there are enough votes to pass the bill.

The Illinois Education Association issued a response today saying that members of House leadership have told the organization that there are not enough legislators willing to vote in favor of Cross' bill. Jim Reed, director of government relations for the IEA, said in a video statement on the group’s website that claims that there is enough support to pass the bill are “false” statements. Reed said the group has been told by legislators that “really nothing has changed since last spring.” The House held a hearing on SB 512 during the the spring legislative session, but Cross acknowledged then that it lacked the support to needed pass on a full floor vote. Union officials say pension benefits are protected by the state Constitution, and plans such as SB 512 are unconstitutional. Senate President John Cullerton has said that he agrees that such changes are unconstitutional. However, if the bill is approved in the House, Cullerton said he would allow it to come up for a vote in his chamber.

The House today passed a different bill from Cross, House Bill 3813, meant to prevent pension fraud and double-dipping cases. The bill was rushed through the legislature after the Chicago Tribune reported on Chicago unions officials collecting both city and union pensions. The paper also uncovered two union officials who served as substitute teachers for one day each and then counted their years working for the union toward state pensions. Cross said such abuses have helped solidify support behind broader pension reforms. “We’re going to do what we can — and I think others will, too — in saying that those days are over, and we can’t go forward. We can’t afford it. Plus, it’s just wrong.”

Cross said Quinn backs HB 3813 and that it has a good chance of passing in the Senate.

“Earlier this week, at the start of session,” said a prepared statement from Quinn’s office. “Governor Quinn urged lawmakers to address flagrant abuses of the pension system. The governor wholeheartedly supports the pension abuse reforms that passed today and is very interested in pension reform moving forward but has always noted that any changes to the pension system should be within the bounds of the Constitution. Governor Quinn looks forward to reviewing legislation once it arrives on his desk.”

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