Pensions dominate District 300 session

ALGONQUIN – Area lawmakers critical of shifting teacher pensions from the state to local school districts were unexpectedly pitted against the chief architect of that idea at Jacobs High School on Tuesday.

State Rep. Elaine Nekritz, D-Northbrook, made a last-minute appearance at District 300’s annual legislative reception for local representatives to defend her Democratic colleagues’ effort to shift teacher pensions – part of $96 billion in unfunded state liability – to local school districts.

“The cost shift is a very controversial item,” Nekritz told 110 district students, parents, teachers and administrators. “But the proposal that has been put forth has had a much more nominal cost shift that we thought it was going to be.”

Nekritz traveled from Northbrook to face Rep. Mike Tryon, R-Crystal Lake, and other like-minded lawmakers who have argued that any shift of teacher pensions will force property tax increases on suburban and downstate residents who can’t afford it.

Nekritz, who chairs the House pension panel, said a pension cost shift would be “more than offset” by $2 billion in annual pension payment savings contained in her proposal.

A lame-duck General Assembly this month never called Nekritz’s pension reform measure for a vote, even though it had been stripped of the pension shift idea to make it more palatable for suburban and downstate lawmakers.

Her proposal at the time included pushing the age that retirees can get automatic 3 percent cost-of-living increases to 67 years and increasing employee contributions by 2 percent of salary, spread out over two years.

Looking at Nekritz, Tryon reiterated his stance that any shift, regardless of offsetting costs, will force school districts to raise property taxes on taxpayers who already are paying an unfair burden for education.

“What will happen is eventually [districts] will cut programs and run referendums, and that will go on our property taxes,” Tyron said.

Freshman Sen. Karen McConnaughay, R-Batavia, agreed with Tryon. Rep. Keith Farnham, D-Elgin, who attended the reception left for another event before the pension debate.

The night was intended for representatives such as Tryon and McConnaughay to meet with constituents from the Carpentersville-based District 300 about state issues facing the district’s 26 schools.

District officials and students spoke at length about the need for more education funding and fewer unfunded mandates. They pressed lawmakers about the district’s overdue $35 million in construction money and inadequate state payments, which have forced cuts in transportation and other services.

The overriding message from the local representatives is that they are facing challenging times, both economic and political, and that makes it difficult to tackle individual needs.

“I have the same frustration you have: ‘Why can’t we just get it done,’ “ McConnaughay said. “But the reality is the process of democracy is very difficult and very messy.”

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