Illinois pension reform bill passes House committee

January 7, 2013 4:16:50 PM PST
The clock is ticking, but the Illinois House adjourned Monday without taking any action on a new pension reform. The plan that was passed by a House committee would help the state battle its $96 billion pension crisis.

There is only one full legislative day left for Illinois lawmakers of the 97th General Assembly to resolve the worst fiscal crisis in state history.

It took until Monday afternoon for an Illinois House committee, by a 6-3 vote, to finally approve a plan of attack.

"Before us is a comprehensive pension bill that stabilizes the pension systems," said State Rep. Elaine Nekritz, (D) Des Plaines.

Not only was the committee chairperson the lead witness for the House pension reform bill, other supporters included the chamber's most powerful Republican.

"We need to support it and we need to pass it," said State Rep. Tom Cross, (R) Minority Leader. "And it needs to get on the governor's desk so he can sign it."

The measure, sponsored by Democrats Nekritz and Daniel Biss, of Evanston, would increase the amounts deducted from current employees' paychecks by 2 percentage points and cap a workers pensionable salary. It would delay cost of living increases until the retiree reached age 67, and it would limit the amount on which COLAs could be applied.

The bill also would require state lawmakers to fully fund the state's required contribution each year.

"I think it's good policy, and I think it's only fair to the employees," said Biss.

But union leaders say they will go to court to challenge any attempt to reduce retiree benefits which they contend are guaranteed by the Illinois constitution.

"If it passes the House, if it successfully passes the Senate and the governor signs it, we'll be in court," said Illinois AFL-CIO's Mike Carrigan.

Senate President John Cullerton, who has spoken out against versions of the House bill, says a limited pension reform proposal passed by his chamber last spring would have a better chance to pass constitutional muster.

But the unions say, if the Cullerton bill was approved by the House, they would still mount a court challenge.

"We will be caught up in court, expensive, with no solution for at least a year or more," said Illinois Federation of Teachers' Dan Montgomery. "In the meantime, the pension mess stands to get worse. You would not have done what your job is in the most practical sense."

If the House sponsors manage to get the pension bill passed Tuesday, it still would have to be approved by the Senate, which does not reconvene until 3 p.m. Tuesday.

The 98th General Assembly will be sworn in on Wednesday at noon. At that point, all legislation would have to be restarted. That means pension reform would several more weeks to approve. Wall Street has already threatened to downgrade Illinois' credit if the state doesn't come up with a resolution soon.