By Jamey Dunn
On Wednesday, the Illinois Senate and House voted to hand over pension reform to a group of 10 legislators who will try to produce a compromise that can pass in both chambers. Several pension ideas have been floated in recent years, and components of those proposals will likely make their way into the committee’s recommendations.
“I think the healthy way to do this is to walk into the room and say, ‘We’ve got a lot of different things that have been Frankensteined together, and let us now examine all of them and see what we can assemble that can get 30 votes in the Senate, 60 votes in the House and achieve adequate savings to put the state on a manageable fiscal course,’” said Sen. Daniel Biss, an Evanston Democrat. Biss was chosen by Senate President John Cullerton to serve on the conference committee. He has been a key player in the efforts to pass changes to the state’s pension systems. However, Biss has been in favor of Senate Bill 1, a measure opposed by Cullerton but backed by House Speaker Michael Madigan. Supporters of SB 1 say that it creates enough savings, by reducing employee benefits, to ensure that the public employee pension systems would be stabilized for the foreseeable future. They argue that the state’s shaky fiscal situation and the nearly $100 billion unfunded liability would justify the Illinois Supreme Court granting lawmakers special powers to fix the problem, despite a constitutional protection for pension benefits.
SB 1 would:
- Increase the retirement age for employees younger than 46. Employees from 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.
- Require employees to contribute 2 percent more of their salaries. The increased contribution would be phased in over two years.
- Cap pensionable salary at $109,000, the limit that is currently used for Tier Two employees. The cap would increase at the rate of one half of the Consumer Price Index that is set for urban consumers. Base the amount of pension benefits that would be eligible for cost-of-living adjustments (COLAs) on the amount of time employees worked. For each year of employment, $1,000 (or $800 for employees who receive Social Security benefits) of pension income would be eligible for a cost-of-living adjustment. For example, if an employee worked for 30 years, then $30,000 of his or her retirement benefit would see an annual COLA. Before employees reached their cap, they would receive a compounding COLA. After they reached the cap, they would get a flat annual increase.
SB1 passed the House in early May with 62 “yes” votes, but it fell short of the 30 votes needed in the Senate. Only 16 senators voted in favor of the bill when it was called for a vote on the floor on May 30. Senate President Cullerton believes that SB 1 is unconstitutional because it does not offer employees anything in return for cutting their benefits. He worked out a compromise with the unions that would offer employees a variety of choices.
Under Cullerton's preferred bill, SB 2404:
- Option 1 Employees would give up their current 3 percent compounded cost of living adjustment for a flat 3 percent COLA that would be delayed for three years after retirement. In exchange, the employees would receive access to retiree health care plans, and future raises would count toward their pensions. They would also have the option of enrolling in a 401(k)-like plan to supplement their pensions.
- Option 2 Under this option, employees would keep their compounded COLAs but would lose access to retiree health care, which is currently subsidized by the state. Their future raises would not count toward pension benefits
- Option 3 Employees would keep their COLAs and access to retiree health care, but they would pay 2 percent more of their salaries to their retirement benefits. Their COLAs would be delayed for three years after retirement.
- Option 1 Workers would keep the 3 percent compounded COLA but give up access to retiree health care.
- Option 2 They could still have access to retiree health care and a 3 percent compounded COLA, but the COLA would be frozen for two years.
But Cullerton’s plan apparently would save far less than SB1. There is also a level of uncertainty because they savings would hinge on which choices employees made. Madigan refused to call Cullerton’s plan for a floor vote in the House despite Cullerton’s insistence that the bill had the support needed to pass in that chamber. Cullerton argues that Madigan's SB1 will save nothing if it is tossed out by the Illinois Supreme Court.
“There needs to be some consensus around what makes it constitutional and a consensus around an adequate level of savings,” says Northbrook Democratic Rep. Elaine Nekritz, who is one of the members Madigan chose to serve on the conference committee. Like Biss, Nekritz has been a point person on the issue for some time and a strong supporter of SB 1. Nekritz said the House will likely never vote on Cullerton’s proposal, but she said, “That doesn’t change the fact that we all recognize that ‘just say no’ is not going to be an active response right now.” So the key for the committee will be finding something that satisfies Cullerton’s demand that employees be offered some kind of consideration for cuts to benefits, while still saving enough money to gain the backing of those who supported SB 1 — most important of all, Madigan.
The presumption is that to reach this compromise, the committee will pull largely from legislation and concepts that have already been debated. “You can cook the soup a number of different ways, but the ingredients are pretty limited at this point,” said Kent Redfield, an emeritus professor of political science at the University of Illinois Springfield.
Biss said he knows that the final product will likely not save the $187 billion that SB 1 is expected to cut. “My view is that there’s room to give on both sides. I think that we’ll need to land in the triple digits. I think if we land in the $125[billion] to $150 billion range, that’s likely to provide the level of fiscal relief that the state needs.” Cullerton this week indicated that he might be open to a model of consideration that does not involve a choice.
A proposal from the Institute of Government and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois would swap the current 3 percent compounded annual COLA, which is the largest cost driver in the pension systems, for a COLA that is tied to inflation. Under SB 2591, which a Senate committee took testimony on this week, the COLA would be one-half of the adjusted Consumer Price Index from the previous year. That means that in times such as recent years, when inflation has been low, retirees would receive small COLAs or sometimes no COLA at all. But in years when inflation is high, retirees would get larger COLAs.
The framers of this proposal say that other factors would help to negate the cost for COLAs in high-inflation years. “Linking COLA to inflation will also reduce the cost of providing the increases during periods of low inflation. Costs would increase when inflation is high; but the impact of this higher cost is mitigated by the fact that the state’s tax base, and thus the state’s tax revenue, rises more quickly when inflation is high,” said a report on the plan from the IGPA. The authors of the report say that this change to COLAs would constitute consideration and would make their plan constitutional. “The truth is that the current COLA provision offers no protection against high inflation — which is an essential feature of any good pension system. It is for this reason that we believe that annuity increases should be linked to some measure correlated with inflation,” the report says. “In our view, it would be constitutionally permissible to reduce the expected average future increase in exchange for the valuable insurance protection that individuals would receive during periods of high inflation.”
Cullerton did not indicate he was in favor of the idea this week, but did say that the plan is something to be considered. The proposal would also require employees to contribute an additional 2 percent of their pay toward retirement benefits. The legislation has the support of the public university presidents and is intended to be coupled with a bill that would gradually shift the future costs of employee retirement benefits to the universities. SB 2591 would apply only to the State University Retirement System, but concepts from the plan could be applied to the other systems for state workers, teachers and lawmakers. Cullerton also said this week that it is possible that different changes would be made to the different systems.
Other pieces may end up in a final plan, such as a funding guarantee that would allow the systems to sue if the state does not make its required annual contribution. Both SB 1 and SB 2404 had some version of a guarantee. Some who back SB 1 have even floated the idea of the guarantee being the thing that is given as consideration in exchange for benefit reductions. However, Cullerton has not warmed to this idea in the past. Recent proposals have also called for money that is currently being used to pay off borrowing that was made to make past pension payments to be redirected to pay down the unfunded liability once the bonds are retired. That could mean an additional $1 billion annually for pensions costs.
Redfield said that even though pension changes are now in the hands of the committee, in the end it will be legislative leaders who are still calling the shots. “Certainly, in terms of the Democrats, I don’t think Cullerton and Madigan have delegated their power to negotiate to those people. They can’t cut a deal independently of their leader. I don’t think that’s going to happen,” he said. “It still comes down to the leaders, and to a certain extent it comes down to one of the [Democratic] leaders backing down from where they were a week ago.”