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House lawmakers to test pension bill in committee

Caption
(AP photo)
Illinois Speaker of the House Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, argues legislation while on the House floor in November at the Illinois State Capitol in Springfield. Gov. Pat Quinn announced what could be a significant advance on pension reform, saying the powerful House speaker was willing to forgo the dicey issue of teachers' retirement costs in order to fix the worst-in-the-nation pension deficit.

SPRINGFIELD – A scaled-back overhaul addressing Illinois’ worst-in-the-nation pension problem is ready for its first test, key House lawmakers said Sunday as they entered the final stretch of the lame-duck session.

The amended measure – which would mean employees chip in more and would freeze cost-of-living increases for retirees, among other provisions – was scheduled to get a committee hearing today, said Rep. Elaine Nekritz, a Northbrook Democrat who has been at the heart of pension talks.

“We think the bill will get out of committee,” she told reporters Sunday. “It’s been my goal throughout this entire process to not to place blame, whether it’s blame as to how we got here, blame as to why this isn’t getting done.”

But Nekritz and other backers were coy about the chances on the floor for the measure during the final days of the current General Assembly, which features lame-duck lawmakers who are not returning and can vote without fearing voter backlash.

Nonetheless, Nekritz said the issue has “consensus among the leaders of the House.”

“We’re taking this one step at a time,” she said. “The bill will get out of committee, and then we’ll work to get votes on the floor.”

Key to the agreement is House Minority Leader Tom Cross, R-Oswego, who has blocked action on closing the monstrous pension deficit because he opposed a provision to shift some teacher-benefit costs to local school districts. A spokeswoman for Cross said he supported the agreement. The opening to a new agreement emerged over the weekend when House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, agreed to set the matter aside for now.

Gov. Pat Quinn – who had set a Wednesday deadline for pension legislation – had been working with Nekritz on the bill, said Quinn’s spokeswoman, Brooke Anderson.

“We’re encouraged by the momentum to fix a problem that urgently needs to be fixed,” she said.

Word of the tentative agreement emerged Sunday when the House reconvened for the final days of the current General Assembly, but made little headway on other issues.

A House committee declined to discuss an assault weapons ban, citing inaction by the Senate, which abruptly adjourned last week without sending the House a gun-control bill or gay marriage legalization, which supporters were counting on.

Also Sunday, the House sponsor pushing approval of medical marijuana said he didn’t expect the issue to come up before Wednesday, when new lawmakers are sworn in.

The amended pension bill, sponsored by Nekritz, would not award annual cost-of-living increases until the age of 67 and would increase employee contributions by 2 percent of salary, spread over two years. Once cost-of-living increases took effect at 67, they would be applied only to the first $25,000 of a retiree’s pension.

Finally, it would require the state to fully fund its portion of pensions under threat of legal action by the accounts’ administrators.

That’s key to hundreds of thousands of workers and retirees who have been forced to pay their share over the years. Decades of inattention by lawmakers and governors to save up for state workers’ retirement plans, including years where they skipped payments, led to the huge shortfall.

Quinn says the deficit grows by $17 million a day. The piling debt has hurt the state’s credit rating, limiting its ability to borrow. It has also eaten up more and more money for education and other public services.

Various plans for bumped-up contributions and less-generous benefits for current employees, raising the retirement age and reducing cost-of-living adjustments for retirees, have been floated in the past year. But the “cost shift” of the employer portion of teachers’ pensions from the state to school districts has stymied attention.

Democratic Senate President John Cullerton has said he wants lawmakers to pass a more modest alternative that the Senate adopted last spring. That proposal affects only a portion of the workers and retirees but would be a starting point for expansion and Cullerton is concerned that more ambitious efforts could be unconstitutional.

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The bill is SB1673.

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Online: http://www.ilga.gov

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Associated Press writer Sara Burnett in Chicago contributed to this report.

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