Monday, December 02, 2013

Politics swirl around pension vote

By Jamey Dunn

The political fallout has begun over a deal reached by legislative leaders to make changes to the state’s public employee pension systems.

The proposal, which is yet another version of Senate Bill 1, is projected to save $160 billion over 30 years and fully fund the pension system by 2043.

The legislation would reduce annual cost of living adjustments (COLAs) for current and future retirees. While previous plans have cut COLAs in a more straightforward way, this bill would apply differently to employees and retirees, depending on how long they worked and which retirement system they are a member. The current COLAs are 3 percent compounding interest. Under the new SB1, the COLA would be determined by 3 percent of salary or 3 percent of the product of years served multiplied by $800 for state employees or $1,000 for teachers and university employees. The COLA would be based on whichever number is smaller. The number for teachers and university employees is larger because workers in both systems generally do not get Social Security benefits. Some annual COLAs would be deferred for current employees upon retirement. The number is contingent of years of service.

Employees younger than 46 would also have to retire later. For each year an employee is younger than 46, an additional four months would be tacked onto the time he or she would have to work to receive full benefits. The proposal would also cap pensionable salary at $109,971, but that number would increase annually based on inflation. The plan would reduce the employee contribution toward retirement benefits by one percentage point and allow the systems to sue the state if it does not make its required payment. However, lawmakers could vote to change the payment schedule and reduce the annual payment. Since the details of the plan were released last week, candidates running in the 2014 elections have been weighing in.

Only one Republican gubernatorial candidate, Bloomington Sen. Bill Brady, came out strongly in favor of the proposal. “I will be voting in support of this legislation, which has been crafted through months of discussion, exhaustive analysis and legislative debate. It will not be an easy vote by any means; in fact it will be one of the most difficult votes I have ever cast,” Brady said in a written statement. Brady served on the conference committee that helped to craft the legislation. “It’s not fair to ask state employees and teachers who have paid every dime they owed to the system to make a sacrifice. It’s necessary, however, because governors and legislators who voted for budgets over the last decade did nothing more than delay the resolution we now have before us.”

Illinois Treasurer Dan Rutherford, who is running for the Republican nomination for governor, said the plan goes too far by not offering employees legitimate consideration for the benefits they would lose. “I have taken due consideration over the long Thanksgiving weekend to evaluate the proposal for State Public Pension Reform. Having examined the information available, I do not support the current legislation. I do not believe it will withstand judicial review should it pass the Illinois General Assembly,” Rutherford said in a written statement. “Strong beliefs are held in this debate, but fundamental to our rule of law is our Constitution. Our government’s obligation can be changed through a process involving adequate consideration to the employees. In my opinion, the legislation before us fails to address this relationship and offer adequate consideration in exchange for altering the pension benefits.”

Union leaders agree with Rutherford that the plan is unconstitutional. “It’s an unfair, unconstitutional scheme that undermines retirement security,” said a statement issued by the We are One Coalition last week.

University of Illinois leaders also oppose the bill. Previous versions of pension reform were based on proposals from the U of I’s Institute of Government and Public Affairs. “The University of Illinois called for a pension system that would be reasonable, responsible, sustainable and competitive with those offered by our peer institutions,” said an email to employees from U of I President Robert Easter; Phyllis Wise, chancellor of the U of I at Urbana-Champaign; Paula Allen-Meares, chancellor of U of I at Chicago; and Susan Koch, chancellor of the U of I at Springfield. “In our view, the legislation under consideration fails to meet those basic principles. The likely changes arguably lessen the retirement commitments made to employees and retirees, and their net effect also will harm the public higher education sector in Illinois.”

Hinsdale Republican Sen. Kirk Dillard, who also is running for governor, has yet to take a stance on the bill. He has instead called for multiple hearings and time before a vote to ensure that lawmakers understand the legislation. “Addressing pension reform is an essential first step in working our way out of a deep fiscal hole,” Dillard said. “But we must know what's in the bill and not rush a vote merely because we've been assured by the leaders and Gov. [Pat] Quinn that this is the best deal for the people of Illinois.” Dillard is not alone. Other Republican lawmakers have complained that they are being pushed to vote too quickly on the more-than-300-page bill.

 Supporters of the plan say the changes in the bill are nothing new to lawmakers who have been debating the issue for years. “We’ve been working on this issue for two years. There’s [been] plenty of time to take a look at every single aspect. It’s been debated, discussed, looked over, analyzed scrutinized — you name it,” Quinn said in Chicago today. “The time for review is fast eclipsing. It’s time now to vote. That’s what the people want. They want their legislators to take this bill that’s been discussed in many different ways and vote on it, and I think a vote ‘yes’ is the best way for our state to go.” Quinn said that the vote would be the “most important” fiscal vote taken by lawmakers during their legislative careers. But he said that anytime there is an important vote, opponents look for ways to block it. “There’s always going to be a do-nothing caucus, and they will say anything in order to continue to do nothing.” The governor added: “I think everyone who is interested in the future of Illinois, the common good, what’s good for taxpayers, should join us in urging a ‘yes’ vote tomorrow for the pension reform.”

Quinn’s own Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon issued a statement today opposing the plan. She says it should do more to protect low-income employees and retirees. “While I congratulate the legislative leaders who came together in a bipartisan way to produce a pension compromise, the proposed legislation puts too much of the burden on lower income workers and retirees,” she said. Simon is also in candidate mode. She is challenging Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka, and the statement was issued by her campaign staff.

Meanwhile, Republican venture capitalist and gubernatorial hopeful Bruce Rauner slammed the proposal, saying it would “guarantee a future of higher taxes.” He said the cuts to benefits do not go far enough and proposes moving workers into a 401(k)-style plan. Rauner and others argue that employee benefits earned to date are protected by the Constitution, but future benefits are not. “Government workers and retirees deserve to be treated fairly. But let’s not forget who pays for this — it’s the hard working taxpayers of our state, who themselves are struggling to make ends meet in an economy that is weighed down by the fiscal blunders in Springfield,” he said in a prepared statement. “We can have a pension system that is fair to both sides of this transaction, the government workers and the taxpayers who pay for it. True reform would cap the current system and fully put in place a 401(k)-style program that is similar to the retirement plans of most Illinoisans. That’s fair to workers and taxpayers, and it ensures we will never face a pension crisis again.”

While Rauner dismissed SB 1, many other business leaders in the state have voiced their support. “The pension crisis is by far the most pressing economic issue facing the state of Illinois today. Despite rapidly escalating pension contributions that are consuming the state’s budget and crowding out funding for critical state services, the fiscal health of the pension funds themselves continues to deteriorate. The bill is a good bill and deserves your support. It incorporates a number of benefit reforms that have been widely discussed and that we have supported in the past,” said a letter sent to lawmakers and signed by several prominent representatives of Illinois business. Those signed on include Tyrone Fahner, president of the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago, a group that led the charge for pension reform in the state; Gregory Baise, president of the Illinois Manufacturers' Association; David Vite, president of the Illinois Retail Merchants Association; and Doug Whitley, president of the Illinois Chamber of Commerce. “While not a solution to all of the state’s fiscal problems, this bill is a significant step forward. It will stabilize the pension systems and help put Illinois on the path to fiscal stability.”

Northbrook Democratic Rep. Elaine Nekritz, who served on the pension conference committee, said of the letter: “I think that that will be very significant in giving people the security that they need that the business interests in the state line up in support.” Nekritz said that while others might have different ideas about how to tackle the problem, they don’t have the votes needed to pass their plans. “We’ve always been trying to achieve a balance with this legislation, and I think that this is a balanced approach, a moderate approach, a compromise approach that actually can pass. It’s one thing to talk about all the things that you’d like to see, but if you can’t put votes on it, then it isn’t any good.”

Those who would rather not see the bill pass tomorrow say that the opposition coming at the issue from two different sides — some arguing that it does not cut benefits enough and others that it cuts too much — could manage to kill the bill through their combined lobbying efforts. “What happens tomorrow, I don’t know?” said Rep. Raymond Poe, a Springfield Republican. Poe represents many state workers and says he does not support the bill. “If both of those forces get together, we may be back to start over again. So who knows where we’re at for sure. ... It’s going to be funny tomorrow to see how that all shakes out.”

Evanston Democratic Sen. Daniel Biss, who also served on the conference committee, said that the opposition on both sides of the spectrum is to be expected. “It’s a compromise. There are those on the right who oppose compromise, who are hard-line dead-enders and don’t want to see us accomplish something. And so we have those opposing it. And of course there are those in [organized] labor who are very concerned that it gives too much, and I understand where they are coming from. But the bottom line is, this is a reasonable sound compromise that saves a lot of money, shelters the people in greatest need and puts us on a path to sustainability.”

Both the House and Senate plan to hold session tomorrow. A hearing on SB 1 is scheduled for 8:30 a.m.  It's difficult to deny the politics of the issue when they may have even had a hand in the timing of a potential vote. The deadline for candidates — including potential challengers to legislators — to file paperwork to appear on the spring primary election ballot passed at 5 p.m. on Monday.

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