Freshman state Rep. David McSweeney’s goal for his first two years in office boils down to one word: pensions.
Expanded into a sentence, his goal is reforming the pension system underfunded by at least $96 billion before it consumes the state budget.
At the very least, he told Northwest Herald editors this week, he wants immediate forward movement – bills on the floor and votes – rather than the past practice of waiting until the last days of session, which he blames in no small part for a lack of reform.
Besides the pension problem, Illinois has more than $9 billion in unpaid bills and the lowest bond rating of all 50 states from Moody’s Investors Service. Standard & Poor’s rating service Friday lowered Illinois’ credit rating from A to A-, blaming the state’s pension problems.
“We have to immediately address the pension problem because it’s suffocating the General Fund,” McSweeney said.
McSweeney, an investment specialist, represents the 52nd House District, the boundaries of which shifted somewhat under post-census redistricting. The district on the new maps shifted south to cover southeastern McHenry County, including Cary and Fox River Grove, and eastern Algonquin, Crystal Lake and Lake in the Hills, plus parts of Lake, Cook and Kane counties.
He won a three-way March primary that included Republican incumbent Kent Gaffney, who was picked by the party to serve out the term of the late Mark Beaubien, who died unexpectedly in June 2011. In November, McSweeney fended off a challenge from Beaubien’s widow, Dee, who ran as an Independent for the seat.
McSweeney was seated in the last days of the previous General Assembly’s lame-duck session earlier this month because Gaffney resigned early. He said he was disappointed that a pension reform bill, drafted by Rep. Elaine Nekritz, D-Northbrook, and backed by House Minority Leader Tom Cross, R-Oswego, did not come up for a vote.
The bill would have limited retirees in four of the five state-run pension systems from collecting cost-of-living expenses until age 67, capped the salary on which the 3 percent COLA is calculated to the first $25,000 of income, and required existing employees to contribute more toward their retirement.
McSweeney said he could support the bill because it dropped the controversial provision to shift teacher pension costs to local school districts.
“The bill that Cross and Nekritz agreed on wasn’t a perfect bill, but it was a start,” McSweeney said.
He split with his fellow McHenry County representatives on his support of the bill. Jack Franks, D-Marengo, said he could not pledge support until he got more information on the cost savings, and Mike Tryon, R-Crystal Lake, said the bill would fail a court challenge from the state’s powerful public-sector unions. The Illinois Constitution states that public pension benefits cannot be diminished or impaired.
McSweeney has turned down the pension and health care benefits available to state lawmakers.
He said the bill should be reintroduced as a starting point and be vigorously debated now rather than later. House lawmakers traditionally have put off pension reform until the last minute, with no results.
An attempt at pension reform fizzled in the last days of the 2012 spring session in May. Nekritz introduced her bill in December, on the last day of the 2012 fall veto session, out of frustration with the lack of initiative by leaders to address the crisis. Her bill in the January lame-duck session cleared committee, but was not called for a vote because supporters could not muster the 60 votes needed to pass.
The Senate had passed their own reform bill in 2011 that stalled in the House, and Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago, has been hesitant to take up reform bills that could clash with the constitutional provision protecting pension benefits.
“Until we get to a point where people start voting, we either won’t go anywhere or we’ll get a crisis,” McSweeney said.
McSweeney said he suspects some elements want to force a crisis to make the temporary income-tax increase permanent or change to a graduated income tax that would take more from middle-class families.
Democratic lawmakers in the 2011 lame-duck session raised the tax rate 67 percent to a 5 percent rate on individuals, and raise it 46 percent on businesses to a 7 percent rate. The temporary hike, proposed by lawmakers as a way for the state to pay down its multibillion-dollar backlog of bills, instead has been swallowed by the state’s pension obligations.
The first bill that McSweeney filed as a lawmaker was to immediately repeal the increases, which are scheduled to start sunsetting in 2015.
While he acknowledged that the bill has no chance of success, he said at the very least he will fight what he said will be an inevitable attempt to make the tax increase permanent.
McSweeney also said he will prioritize efforts to decrease residents’ property-tax burdens. He said he wants to see a three-year freeze on tax bills, and said he will support Franks’ ongoing effort to prevent taxing bodies from collecting increases in years when their total assessed values decline.
“A lot of these local governments are just spending too much money,” McSweeney said.
He also plans next week to file a bill making it harder for governments to take out alternate revenue bonds, and easier for voters to contest them by lowering the signature requirements to force them to a referendum.
McSweeney has opened his district office at 105 E. Main St. in Cary.
How to contact 52nd House District Rep. David McSweeney
105 E. Main St.,
Cary, IL 60013
226-N Stratton Office Building
Springfield, IL 62706