Wednesday, December 05, 2012

House members propose new plan for state employee pensions

By Jamey Dunn

A group of Illinois House members are pitching a new pension reform plan, which they say they hope will move stalled negations forward.

“There is absolutely no question that the pension issue is the most serious public policy facing the state of Illinois. ... I think there is a frustration, a genuine frustration, on the part of many members of the legislature that there has not been meaningful negotiation, meaningful progress on this most serious issue,” said Rep. David Harris, who has signed on as a sponsor of House Bill 6258. Harris is joined by 20 other House members as sponsors, including one other Republican “I can tell you that there are others on my side of the aisle who feel very strongly that this bill moves us in the right direction,” said Harris, a Republican from Arlington Heights.

 The measure would:

  •  Allow cost of living adjustments on only the first $25,000 of a retiree’s pension, or on only $20,000 for those who receive Social Security benefits. COLAs would not kick in until a retiree turns 67 or five years after retirement, whichever comes first. 
  • Increase the retirement age for employees younger than age 46. Employees from age 40 to 45 would see a one-year increase, employees 35 to 39 would see a three-year increase and employees 34 and younger would see a five-year increase. 
  • Increase the employee contribution by two percentage points, which would be phased in over two years. 
  •  Limit the amount of pensionable income to the Social Security wage base, which will be $113,700 in 2013, or the employee's current salary, whichever is greater. 
  • Create a hybrid 401K-type plan, also called a cash balance plan, for newly hired teachers and university and community college employees, with employer contributions and a guaranteed return on investment rate. Employees unhappy with so-called Tier 2 pension benefit could opt into this plan instead. 
Supporters say that they cannot estimate how much the bill would save until they get actuarial analysis from the state pension systems. Sponsor Rep. Daniel Biss, who developed the cash balance plan, said the bill would eliminate the unfunded liability after 30 years.

Unlike other proposals, the plan does not present employees with a choice of keeping one kind of employee benefit, such as retiree health insurance, or giving up some of the value of their pension benefit. Senate President John Cullerton has in the past said that such consideration must be given to employees for a proposal to pass constitutional muster. “The Senate president is encouraged that members are identifying ways to capture the local share of pension costs from local school districts. However, the larger proposal appears to impose unilateral pension reductions without offering voluntary acceptance by participants. We appreciate the efforts of [Northbrook Democratic Rep.] Elaine Nekritz and her colleagues, but we will take a closer look at the plan to see if it can be squared with the pension clause [of the state Constitution]," said a written statement from Cullerton's office.

Nekritz, who is spearheading the new push for reform, said the group reviewed several opinions on the constitutionality of the changes to the system. “I don’t think anyone can know in advance what the seven supreme court justices will do,” she said. “I think all of us would agree that without some changes, Illinois will be sent into fiscal oblivion, and we have to avoid that.” Backers of the new proposal said that such a choice is confusing to employees and creates uncertainty about how much a plan would save because it would be determined by which option employees picked.

The new plan includes a provision that sponsors say would ensure funding from the state. The pension systems would be able to sue if the state did not make its required contributions. “Right now, there’s no mechanism for anyone to say to the state, ‘You must make that payment,’” said Nekritz. “This would be a mechanism to allow the state pension systems to go into court and enforce that payment.”

The measure would call on school districts outside of Chicago, along with universities and community colleges, to pick up pension costs going forward, but would not require them to pay for the billions in current unfunded liability. The employers would pick up those costs at the rage of .5 percent of payroll per year. Biss, an Evanston Democrat, said of the phase in: “It’s very slow. ... The slowest of any proposal we’ve seen so far.” But Republican leaders do not seem to be warming to a cost shift, no matter how gradual. “I have met with the primary sponsors and welcome their effort to offer new ideas on moving comprehensive pension reform forward,” said Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno. “As the supporters of this latest plan themselves indicated, we need a thorough actuarial analysis to determine if it could actually solve the problem. Illinois is desperate for pension reform – for the taxpayers and for those who are going to depend on a retirement check. But it has to be comprehensive and it has to work mathematically. And it cannot allow the state to set benefits but send the bill to downstate and suburban homeowners.”

House Minority Leader Tom Cross did say that he thought the measure is a good step in renewing negotiations. “There is a lot of merit to this proposal,” Cross said in a prepared statement. He said he was glad that the choice between COLAs or subsidized health care had been removed.

A coalition of unions commended the group of House members for moving the “pension conversation forward” but took issue with the specifics of the plan. “We were not consulted in the development of this plan, but our preliminary review suggests that there are significant problems with HB 6258 that need to be worked through. The pension debt was caused by the state's failure to make actuarially adequate pension contributions, not by public employees, but like its predecessors, this proposal essentially balances the pension debt on the backs of teachers, police officers, nurses, caregivers and other public servants, both active and retired. It is also unclear at this juncture whether this proposal is constitutionally or actuarially sound,” said a written statement from the We Are One Coalition. “We intend to thoroughly analyze this proposal's elements and provide a more comprehensive response in the coming weeks.”

Gov. Pat Quinn’s reaction to the bill was positive but vague. “As the governor has said, our focus is enacting comprehensive pension reform by January 9,” said a written statement from Quinn’s office. “As we continue negotiations and discussion on how to achieve comprehensive pension reform as soon as possible, this latest bipartisan proposal sponsored by Rep. Nekritz is a welcome contribution. We have been and will continue to work closely with the legislative leaders and members of the General Assembly until we get the job done on pension reform.”

Nekritz and Biss said their goal is to get legislation approved before the current legislative session ends on January 9, but Nekritz said if that deadline is not made, it does not mean the end of the push for pension reform. “We don’t fall off a cliff on January 9, so we would be able to continue this discussion through the spring session.” Both said they are open to tweaking the bill and hope to get feedback before the legislature is back in session in early January. They said that they think the new plan has momentum in the House because it has grown out of suggestions from rank-and-file legislators. “In order to produce the kind of comprehensive solution that has enough different ingredients to make it acceptable to a majority of the House, I think it makes sense for it to bubble up from the people who are going to have to vote for it,” Biss said.

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