Thursday, May 03, 2012

Voters will decide on requirements for increasing pension benefits

 By Ashley Griffin

Illinois is one step closer to making it more difficult to increase pension benefits for state employees, but voters will get the final decision in November.

The Senate today passed House Joint Resolution Constitutional Amendment 49, which is a constitutional amendment that would require a three-fifths vote by the General Assembly to enhance public employee pension benefits. That means that instead of 30 votes in the Senate and 60 votes in House needed to pass, the new amendment would require 36 votes in the Senate and 71 votes in the House. The measure passed the Senate with 51 “yes” votes and 2 “no” votes. It now  has passed both legislative chambers and will be on the November ballot for voters to decide on.

“There’s a lot of tough medicine in this resolution. I think the tough medicine is needed,” said House Speaker Michael Madigan. 

The measure comes at a time when lawmakers are trying to reform the state’s crumbling pension system. Currently, the pension systems have more than $80 billion in liabilities. Earlier last month, Gov. Quinn released his own plan to help mend the system that would require employees to choose between keeping subsidized retiree health care or accepting diminished benefits. Under the proposal, employee contributions would rise by3 percent, and the retirement age would jump to 67.

But union officials say the amendment does not address the problems with the pension system, which were caused primarily by governors and lawmakers who opted to skip payments. “This measure is misleading to the public. Though cast as “reform,” it would do nothing to solve the real problem plaguing Illinois public retirement systems, which is a lack of funding, not excess benefits,” said Anders Lindall, a spokesperson for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 31.

Lindall said that the pensions earned by teachers, police, caregivers and other public employees are modest— $32,000 a year on average. He said many public workers aren’t eligible for Social Security, and they have always paid their share of retirement costs — typically 8 to 10 percent of every pay check.

When lawmakers reduced pension for workers hired after January of last year, concerns were raised that the benefits might not be generous enough to allow workers who do not collect Social Security, such as teachers and university employees, to remain outside of the government retirement program. Lindall said that if that new pension program needs to be fixed, this amendment would make it difficult.

However, Madigan said that support for sweetening the benefits of those hired under the new pension benefits system is part of his motivation for sponsoring 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.”

 For now, the fate of the proposal will have to wait until November. To become a part of the state’s Constitution, the proposal must receive the support of either three-fifths of those voting on the question or the majority of those voting in the election.

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