SPRINGFIELD – A hearing Thursday on the Illinois House floor intended to gauge lawmakers’ support for potential pension reforms turned into a tense squabble between Democrats and Republicans, a sign of the escalating frustration at the lack of compromise on the state’s most pressing financial problem.
House Speaker Michael Madigan called the hearing to get legislators to openly debate and vote on four divisive proposals that could affect some of the state’s retirement systems. None of them garnered more than five “yes” votes in the 118-member body, and Republicans refused to even participate.
Madigan’s contentious amendments would have eliminated cost-of-living increases, prohibit COLA payouts in years when the pensions are not funded at 80 percent or more of the total they owe, require employees hired after January 2011 to pay an additional 5 percent toward their pensions on top of other contributions, and penalize retirement before age 67 with reduced benefits.
House Minority Leader Tom Cross, who spoke on behalf of the Republican side, characterized the hearing as political gamesmanship.
“It’s a tragedy; it’s embarrassing,” Cross said as his caucus stood up and applauded.
The state is running a $96 billion deficit due to decades of state underfunding, and preventing the gap from growing next year will cost the state $8.5 billion, or more than a quarter of the state’s general funds.
Madigan’s changes would have applied to the retirement systems of state workers, university employees, teachers and members of the General Assembly. The state’s fifth retirement account, which is funded by judges, was not considered in any of Madigan’s proposals.
Cross called for all lawmakers to seriously work together to achieve a solution. He praised the work done by a bipartisan group which includes Cross that put forth another plan Wednesday. It requires greater employee contributions, reduced benefits and a guarantee that the state would pay its future obligations.
Rep. Jack Franks, a Marengo Democrat, followed Cross’ remarks by suggesting that lawmakers focus exclusively on finding a pension solution and simply put other work aside.
The fireworks erupted after Rep. Bill Mitchell, R-Forsyth, criticized Democratic leadership for not allowing one of his bills to be heard on the floor.
Mitchell said his bill could save taxpayers $7 million a year by selling the state’s aircraft fleet, including the one used by the governor during official travels.
Rep. Michael Zalewski, D-Riverside, said Mitchell’s complaint seemed “silly” considering the size of the pension problem.
“To have a bill that saves $7 million in a $33 billion dollar budget, and say that that’s the next priority after what we just went through was to me just a little disingenuous,” Zalewski said after the debate.
Republicans and Democrats continued the finger pointing until Cross interjected and called for both sides to end the blame game.
“People are frustrated and angry and struggling to find a way to solve the problem,” said Cross, who had just signaled the Republicans to calm down. “It’s time to put the acrimony aside.”