SPRINGFIELD — The Illinois House adjourned Tuesday without taking a vote on any plans to overhaul the massively underfunded pension systems for government workers.
House members didn't call a vote on a last-minute proposal offered by Gov. Pat Quinn that called for the creation of a Pension Review Commission that would have been given power to make decisions regarding the paying for the pension systems.
The commission's decisions would have taken effect unless the General Assembly votes to overturn them.
Quinn, testifying before a House committee on the pension issue, said the commission would work similar to the federal commission that makes recommendations on which military bases to close. He said the base-closure commission was created because of a similar problem -- lawmakers could never agree on which bases to close.
"It's time to realize under this emergency ... that we have to take an extraordinary action to help break the gridlock," the Democratic governor told the Personnel and Pensions Committee.
The appointed panel, consisting of eight members, would have been given until April 30 to recommend changes to the pension systems.
Unions quickly criticized the proposal as a back-door way of changing the system, and a way for legislators to hand the problem off to someone else.
Tuesday's House session was the final full day of the lame-duck session for the 97th General Assembly. The 98th General Assembly begins Wednesday, with the swearing-in of senators and representatives who were elected in November.
Quinn, during a news conference earlier Tuesday, said failure to solve the problem increases the amount the pension systems are underpaid by $17 million a day. The systems currently are underpaid by about $96 billion.
"If we don't address this issue promptly, our state will continue to suffer, grievously," Quinn said.
He added that pension costs are eating up a growing chunk of the money the state needs to provide other government services.
"Very shortly, we'll put more money into our public pension bank, than into our schools," he said.
Members of a House committee on Monday approved a different proposal, calling for increased contributions from workers, freezing cost-of-living increases and raising the retirement age. But that bill did not gather enough support for passage.
Under that bill, annual cost-of-living increases would not be awarded until the age of 67, and employee contributions would increase by 2 percent of salary, spread over two years. Once cost-of-living increases take effect at 67, they would be applied only to the first $25,000 of a retiree's pension, or the first $20,000 for retirees who also receive Social Security. The sponsor of that bill, Rep. Elaine Nekritz, D-Northbrook, said she plans to file it again in the new General Assembly.
But Rep. Dwight Kay, R-Glen Carbon, had doubts on whether a resolution can be reached soon. He said some lawmakers want more tax revenue for the pension systems.
"I wish I could be more optimistic about the future, but my considered opinion is that nobody wants to fix this, until money -- through taxes -- can be raised to support a proposal which will be far different from what we've seen to this point," Kay said.
Kay said the Nekritz bill had some bipartisan support in the House, "but there weren't enough Republicans who wanted to make that vote, and not enough Democrats who wanted to make that vote."
Kay said there's no way that Quinn's plan, which he called "completely off the reservation," would have passed if called for a vote in the House. He said there was "not one" Republican House member who supported it.
Quinn's plan cleared a House committee on Tuesday by a 7-2 vote, but didn't get any further.
House Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie, D-Chicago, voted for the measure to move it to the floor despite reservations about its constitutionality.
"This is enormous. We're talking about four pensions systems, each of which is extremely complex," Currie said. "I have the same concerns others have voiced about the inappropriate and improper delegation of authority that I take very much to heart."
Under Quinn's plan, the commission members could be members of the public who have never been elected to office. Each of the four legislative leaders -- Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton and Republican House Leader Tom Cross and Senate Leader Christine Radogno -- would get to choose two people to serve.
Union officials called the proposed commission a "desperate Hail Mary pass," "disturbing" and "a travesty of process."
"You could say it's clever," said Dan Montgomery, president of the Illinois Federation of Teachers. "I would say unfortunately I think it's kind of a cynical and seemingly reasonable but rather sad attempt to get something done."
Unions have threatened to challenge any pension changes as unconstitutional. Instead of benefit reductions, the unions want lawmakers to raise taxes on corporations.
"We don't have a benefit problem," said Cinda Klickna of the Illinois Education Association, a teacher union. "We have a revenue problem."
A business-backed group, the Illinois Policy Institute, said government workers should be offered the opportunity to participate in 401(k)-type retirement plans.
"Politician-controlled pension systems are a failure. We simply can't trust them to manage this crisis moving forward," said John Tillman, CEO of the group. "Government workers deserve to control their own retirement savings in ways that meet their own needs, not the needs of the political leaders in Springfield. A 401(k)-style plan is the only moral solution that delivers a reliable retirement for government employees and liberates taxpayers from funding a failed system."
Contact reporter Brian Brueggemann at firstname.lastname@example.org or 618-239-2511.