State lawmakers scramble to digest pension reform bill

From staff and wire reportsDecember 2, 2013 

Area supporters rallied outside Monday outside the Edwardsville offices of Illinois Rep. Dwight Kay to make a plea for no cuts to their teachers' benefits.


— Fresh off a holiday weekend, Illinois lawmakers scrambled Monday upon returning to Springfield to digest details of a complex plan to solve the state's $100 billion pension crisis just a day before an expected vote.

A growing chorus of conservatives made statements in opposition to the proposal they say is being rushed through. A draft of the legislation was distributed Sunday and Monday, which left some lawmakers complaining that they won't have enough time to study it.

Rep. Dwight Kay, R-Glen Carbon, whose district includes Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, said he just received a copy of the bill on Monday afternoon.

"And it's several hundred pages," Kay said. "If you were to take someone's word for it, which I'm not inclined to do, you might say it's a good bill. But I'm going to actually go through the bill, and make sure it's actual reform, and not fluff."

He added, "I'm in the fact-finding mode, and probably will be up until the vote."

Rep. Charlie Meier, R-Okawville, whose district covers two large state facilities -- Centralia Correctional Center and the Warren G. Murray Developmental Center -- said he still had not received a copy of the bill as of mid-afternoon Monday.

"We were promised in a conference call on Wednesday afternoon that we would have this to look at on Friday," Meier said. "If we're supposed to do this vote, why aren't they getting it to us so we can see it?"

Meier, who received his biggest campaign contributions from teacher unions, said he'll likely vote against the plan.

"I'm going to do what I think is right," he said. "At this point in time, I will be a 'no.' How do you vote for such a radically-changing thing, especially when you don't get to see the bill?"

Sen. Bill Haine, D-Alton, said he's also voting against the plan. Haine's district includes SIUE, Lewis & Clark Community College, regional headquarters for the Department of Transportation and State Police, a state mental institution, some state parks and several large school districts.

Haine said he's voted for previous pension reforms, including a new two-tier system, that are estimated to save billions, but this plan is too "draconian" and hits retirees too hard.

"They were not easy votes -- they were tough votes. But I'm not going to be stampeded into voting for this plan," Haine said. "I said during the campaign that I would vote for a constitutional, fair system that brings balance to these funds, and I didn't say it would be painless, but this current bill, I just don't think this approach is necessary at this juncture, given the savings we've already accomplished."

Legislative leaders say the proposal, announced last week, would save an estimated $160 billion over 30 years and aims to close the enormous shortfall in the state's five pension systems by 2044. The pension shortfall, considered the nation's worst, developed after lawmakers short-changed state retirement systems for years.

Teacher unions, which oppose the bill, held rallies across the state on Monday at the offices of Illinois lawmakers. In the metro-east, they held one at Kay's office in Edwardsville and at the office of Rep. Eddie Lee Jackson, D-East St. Louis, and the office of Rep. Jerry Costello II, D-Smithton.

Michael McDermott, higher education director for the Illinois Education Association, said his union chose to hold rallies at the offices of lawmakers who could maybe be convinced to vote against the bill. IEA members were at Kay's office, while Illinois Federation of Teachers members were at the other offices.

"I believe Dwight Kay and many other Republicans are concerned that if this proposal were passed, it could result in increased income taxes for the citizens of the state of Illinois. They're certainly not in favor of that," McDermott said.

He added, "The state employees have paid their fair share into the retirement system, but the state has refused to do so."

Marcia Campbell, an accounting specialist at Southwestern Illinois College who serves as secretary-treasurer for the Illinois Federation of Teachers, said: "We want to deliver a message. We feel there's a constitutional guarantee for our pensions."

The Illinois Chamber of Commerce supports the plan, saying that although stronger reform is needed, passing the bill is better than doing nothing.

The chamber issued a statement: "After years of unbalanced budgets, ignoring the pension time bomb, and weathering numerous bond rating downgrades, this proposal represents a real opportunity for Illinois state government to demonstrate it is capable of finding solutions to resolve financial problems. Approval of this measure is a critical step on the road to financial sanity."

While some legislators were intent on studying the proposal as early as possible, other members told The Associated Press they hadn't read more than a summary of the legislation, and didn't plan to do so until Tuesday.

"I haven't even looked at the paperwork," Democratic state Rep. Linda Chapa La Via of Aurora, said.

"I think everyone would like more time," she said, but in lieu of that, "give us enough evidence to review it."

Republican state Rep. Tom Cross of Oswego said he's waiting to hear from the state's pension systems about the deal's possible impact.

"This is going to be the biggest vote most legislators make in their career," he said. "You've got one shot at this and you want to do it right."

Legislative leaders have spent recent days drumming up support for the plan through conference calls and meetings with individual members. At the same time, Illinois unions spent Monday flooding the offices of lawmakers as they work to oppose the measure. Labor groups say it's unfair to retirees and believe that some parts are unconstitutional.

To accomplish the savings, the proposal would push back the retirement age for workers age 45 and under on a sliding scale. The annual 3 percent cost-of-living increases for retirees would be replaced with smaller annual adjustments for the highest earners. Some workers would have the option of freezing their pension and starting a 401(k)-style defined contribution plan.

Language to prevent "pension abuses" is also part of the plan, as nongovernment employees couldn't participate and new hires wouldn't be able to bank sick or vacation time to boost pensions.

Members of a bipartisan conference committee on pensions will meet Tuesday morning and are expected to sign a report approving the deal. Both chambers could bring the measure up for a vote the same day.

Some members, including Democratic state Rep. Greg Harris, said they were comfortable voting for the plan, even with a short turnaround.

"These concepts have been talked about for a long time," Harris said, acknowledging that there was "natural fear or concern of is the best possible solution."

Only one of the three GOP candidates for governor supports the agreement. State Sen. Bill Brady of Bloomington, a pension committee member, said it was a difficult decision.

U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk, the state's highest ranking Republican, said Monday the General Assembly should reject the bill "that neither lawmakers nor the voters have had the time to read."

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