Tuesday, January 08, 2013

97th General Assembly adjourns without changing state pensions

By Jamey Dunn

The Illinois House and Senate adjourned their two-year legislative sessions today without approving a pension reform measure, dashing the hopes of those who were striving to get legislation approved during the General Assembly's lame-duck session.

“We didn’t quite get there, so we are going to regroup and start up again,” said Northbrook Democrat Rep. Elaine Nekritz, who sponsored a pension reform proposal a committee approved yesterday but that was not called for a floor vote. She said there is no single component of reform that is holding it up. “It remains a range of issues that members are concerned about. Look, when you’re impacting people’s retirement security, it’s a tough vote, and people have a lot of different concerns about it. It would be great if we could have one thing we could focus on and get it corrected, but that’s not the way this works.”

In what many described as a Hail Mary attempt to get something done on pension reform, Gov. Pat Quinn pushed the idea of creating a special pension commission with the power to create a plan that would become law unless the General Assembly intervened. Under a proposed amendment to Senate Bill 1673, a special commission appointed by the legislative leaders would be required to present a plan by April 30 that would ensure that the pension systems were 100 percent funded by 2045. The proposal from the commission would become law unless both chambers voted to reject it.

“We have to take extraordinary action to help break the gridlock,” Quinn said when he testified in favor of the plan before a House committee today. Quinn said that failure to act would eventually result in the state’s bond rating being downgraded yet again. “We have to understand that this is an emergency.” Quinn compared the idea to the federal Base Closure and Realignment Commission, a federal entity that was created to recommend military bases for closure after it become clear that regional interests were making it all but impossible for Congress to approve closures. If the bill would have passed, Quinn said he would have signed it and then no longer would have been a part of the process. The bill would not have required that the governor sign off on the commission’s proposal.

But detractors questioned the constitutionality of such a plan, and it was not called for a vote in the House. “I myself thought that his late proposal was perhaps not the very best public policy pronouncement. I think there are constitutional questions about it,” Chicago Democratic Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie said after the House adjourned. Nekritz said she sponsored the measure, which Quinn brought to her, because she thought it deserved consideration. “Clearly, some dynamic needs to change. We have been working at this a very long time, and it’s been challenging to get the necessary votes on the bill, obviously. An idea to sort of shake that up, I think we had to look at that,” she said.

Currie said that those who have been working on pension reform should not take the days events as a failure. “It’s not as if any of this is new. This is very very tough. And I think there’s going to be no matter what we do if we do something there will be constitutional challenges,” she said. “I’m not embarrassed that we didn’t get it done today. I am embarrassed we haven’t done anything so far, but I am encouraged that we, as of yesterday, seemed really to have a renewed focus renewed energy renewed effort on the whole issue of pensions.”

Nekritz and newly sworn in Sen. Daniel Biss, an Evanston Democrat, said they each plan to introduce a pension reform plan in their respective chambers when the new legislative session starts tomorrow. “It’s not at all back to the drawing board,” Biss said. “We feel like we had tremendous momentum yesterday. We still have tremendous momentum today, and we want to carry that forward.” He said the legislation they plan to file would be nearly identical to a proposal, House Bill 6258, which more than a dozen House members brought forward in December. The plan a House committee approved Monday was based on that proposal. But Biss said he and Nekritz want to return to the initial legislation because he said it is a “good negotiation platform.” He and Nekritz both emphasized that they are open to changes to the legislation, and no ideas are off the table. “This issue is tough and complicated, and different people have different challenges with it, and so it’s really a matter of cobbling that majority together one vote at a time. And we’ll learn as we work with these new members one at a time what those issues are. And we hope it will be easier, and we know it won’t be very easy. But we know it can be done,” Biss said.

Senate President John Cullerton believes that the framework for HB 6258 is unconstitutional. “The Constitution says you can’t unilaterally pass a law taking away people’s pension benefits. You have to ask them to do it contractually,” Cullerton said. He maintains that some consideration must be given to workers for any reduction in their benefits. A plan that passed in the Senate would have asked employees to choose between their compounded-interest cost-of-living adjustments or state subsidized retiree health care. “Their bill unilaterally takes away people’s rights in exchange for nothing. That’s why it’s unconstitutional.”

However, Cullerton said he would be willing to call a bill that he believes is unconstitutional as long as it is approved in tandem with a plan that he thinks is constitutional. “I said that I would support that bill and work to pass it in the Senate as long as they had a backup.” Cullerton called on the House to pass a fail-safe proposal that was approved by the Senate. He said  if the Supreme Court were to rule the House plan constitutional, it would become the law. But if the court rejected the House proposal, the Senate version could then be considered. He said he plans to introduce a new Senate bill tomorrow that covers all the pension systems except judges. He said that bill would not include a controversial cost shift of the entire employer portion of pension benefits to downstate schools, public universities and community colleges. “For us to pass a bill which is unconstitutional and to pretend like we did some kind of reform with no backup, only to have it thrown out a year later — a year of lost time of trying to fix the pension system — to me is cynical.”

The 98th General Assembly will be sworn in tomorrow.

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