Wednesday, April 18, 2012

House OKs higher threshold for pension increases; not tax hikes

By Jamey Dunn 

The Illinois House approved a measure today that would make it more difficult to increase pension benefits, but Republicans argue that the same threshold should be set for tax increases.

There was no opposition in the House to a proposed constitutional amendment that would require that any increase in pension benefits for public workers to receive a three-fifths majority vote to pass. Currently, such increases require a simple majority. “There’s a lot of tough medicine in this resolution. I think the tough medicine is needed,” said House Speaker Michael Madigan, who sponsored HJRCA 49.
Under the measure, an increase to salary or wages would not constitute a pension benefit increase, unless the raise was excessive. Madigan said that lawmakers could set the parameters for “excessive” pay increases.

The amendment would up the required support to override a veto of a bill containing pension benefits to two thirds of each chamber. Currently, only a three-fifths majority is required to override a veto. It also calls for increased benefits for municipal public workers to be approved by a three-fifths majority of a local board or council.

Union officials say that the state’s billions in unfunded pension liability was caused by lawmakers and governors opting to skip annual pension payments, not by increased benefits. “This change to the Constitution would not address the true crisis threatening Illinois public retirement systems, which is the habitual failure of politicians to adequately fund the modest pensions earned by public employees. We continue to believe that this funding crisis can only be solved by all parties working together in good faith, and our union remains committed to doing so,” said Anders Lindall, spokesman for the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees Council 31.

A recent report from the Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability found that the bulk of the shortfall is a result of underfunding.

Lindall also argued that the reduced pension benefits that went into effect last year do not meet federal requirements for employees, such as teachers, who will not receive Social Security benefits for the time they work for the state. “The lower pension tier forced on newly hired public employees must be fixed to avoid severe federal penalties. It is unwise to make such needed amendments more difficult to achieve,” Lindall said.

However, Madigan said that support for sweetening the benefits of those hired under the new pension benefits system is part of his motivation for supporting the amendment. “I’ve already been in conversations where people are saying that the tier two — that was created a few years ago and is in place for those hired to public jobs after Jan 1 of 2011 — is not sufficient. That it has to be improved. That we have to make it better,” Madigan said. “So that’s another reason to support this resolution and raise that vote count because those that even in the current crisis think that we ought to be improving pensions are here at the Capitol building already laying the seeds for what will be their efforts very shortly to again improve pension benefits.” Madigan said that the amendment is not meant to put a stop to benefit increases, but it would make it more difficult to pass them. “If you are an individual here, or if you are a member of a group in the legislature who wishes to work against these bills, this will advantage your position. … You’ll have a better chance.”

Rep. Darlene Senger, a Naperville Republican, said that the measure is “a step in the right direction” but does not solve the state’s pension problems. “I do want everyone to know that when you see this on the ballot in November, there’s a lot more work that has to be done before then in regards to reforming pensions,” she said. “This does not change anything in regards to the debt for the unfunded liabilities … and it does nothing currently to the crisis we have in regards to our state budget with trying to fund pensions and Medicaid.”

Springfield Republican Rep. Raymond Poe said that the amendment should also protect against lawmakers voting to skip pension payments by setting the threshold to skip a payment at a three-fifths majority. “We also need a safeguard in there that you can’t short those payments in the future,” Poe said. The measure contains no such provision. The issue of guaranteeing future payments into the pension system will likely play into the ongoing negotiations over other pension reforms that may include reductions in benefits for workers hired before lower benefits for new employees went into effect last year.

 After Madigan’s amendment was approved, Republicans moved to have two constitutional amendments that are languishing in the rules committee called to the floor for a vote. The amendments would require the approval of a three-fifths majority to increase taxes in the state. “Let me commend Speaker [Madigan] for realizing that some votes in this chamber carry heavier consequences and deserve a little bit of extra scrutiny. He is right that decisions that have great impacts on the fiscal health of Illinois residents and the state as a whole should have to meet a higher standard and require a greater threshold,” said Arlington Heights Rep. David Harris, who is listed as a sponsor on both amendments. Harris argued that such a higher threshold should also apply to tax votes. “This is nothing significant or new. We already require a higher voting standard for borrowing, for laws that would preempt home rule and to overturn the governor’s veto. The next logical steep would be to require the very same threshold for bills that would make Illinois residents have to pay more taxes.” The Republicans’ efforts were blocked and the measures did not come up for a vote.

If the Senate approves HJRCA 49, it would appear on the ballot in the November general election. To be included in the state’s Constitution, it would require the support of either three-fifths of those who choose to vote on the question or the majority of those voting in the election .

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