State Government

Local reps pan pension hearing

McHenry County’s representatives in the Illinois House did not have high praise for Thursday’s attempt at moving pension reform forward.

Republicans joined their GOP colleagues in not voting for House Speaker Michael Madigan’s soundly defeated proposals, calling the exercise political gamesmanship.

Joining them on the sidelines of abstention was Democratic state Rep. Jack Franks, who now is pushing for Madigan to call a Committee of the Whole and suspend all other House business until a realistic solution is found to address the state’s $96 billion unfunded pension liability.

“Our debts are crushing us. Each day we delay is costing the taxpayers another $17 million. Nothing else is more important – we have to stop the hemorrhaging,” Franks said Friday.

The powerful House speaker called Thursday’s hearing to get legislators to openly debate and vote on four proposals he advanced – all of them draconian and none of which received more than five “yes” votes from Democratic lawmakers.

One amendment would have completely eliminated automatic 3 percent cost-of-living increases for retired state workers, and another would have eliminated them until the five state-run pension systems are 80 percent funded.

Another would have raised the retirement age to 67 for current employees – the only “yes” vote came from Madigan – and another would require state employees to contribute 5 percent more to their funds.

The authors of the 1970 Illinois Constitution included a provision that pension benefits cannot be diminished or impaired, meaning any attempt to alter existing benefits for state employees and retirees undoubtedly will face a strong legal challenge from Illinois’ powerful public-sector unions.

Reforms that took effect in 2011 for state hires going forward raised the retirement age to 67, lowered the COLA percentage and set a maximum salary from which pensions can be calculated.

Rep. Mike Tryon, R-Crystal Lake, echoed Thursday’s remarks from Minority Leader Tom Cross, R-Oswego, in calling Thursday’s hearing a farce.

Tryon said lawmakers should vote on complete bills, not piecemeal proposals such as what was attempted Tuesday in a similar hearing over approving a federal court-mandated bill to allow concealed carry in Illinois.

“This is ridiculous. They put up blatantly unconstitutional parts of pension bills that are changing terms for existing retirees. It was just another type of politics,” Tryon said. “We have several bills – put them up. Let’s vote on them. The stuff we were voting on [Thursday] wouldn’t have survived any kind of legal challenge.”

McHenry County’s freshman House members – Republicans David McSweeney and Barbara Wheeler – said after their January swearing-in that they wanted immediate action on pension reform. But they joined their party in boycotting the vote.

“It was political theater. It was just a joke, and they were not serious proposals,” said McSweeney, R-Barrington Hills. “We’re in a crisis, and it’s time for serious people to get the job done. What I saw yesterday is everything that’s wrong with politics.”

Thursday’s proposals were likely a series of test votes to see how far lawmakers are willing to go to rein in pension costs, which have reached crisis proportions because of decades of elected officials underfunding them while at the same time approving generous benefits.

It will cost $8.5 billion, or more than a quarter of the state’s General Fund, just to keep the $96 billion gap from growing.

Wheeler, R-Crystal Lake, called Madigan’s “nuclear” amendments an attempt to trap Republican lawmakers into making unpopular votes.

“It was a setup for the 2014 election. We can’t be concerned about elections – we have to be concerned about pension reform,” Wheeler said.

While both parties own the blame for the pension mess, majority Democrats may end up owning the fix – or the lack of one. Voters in November handed Democrats supermajorities in both houses, meaning they can pass legislation without a single Republican vote.

McSweeney said Franks’ idea to hold a Committee of the Whole and table all other business until a workable and defendable reform plan is created is the best route to go. Franks said Cross and Madigan are discussing the idea. The House is set to reconvene Tuesday.

Illinois’ public pension obligations have swallowed almost all of the new revenue created by the historic 2011 income-tax increase that Democratic lawmakers had sold as a temporary measure to pay down the state’s huge backlog of unpaid bills.

The tax increase – 67 percent on individuals and 46 percent on businesses – is supposed to start phasing out in 2015, but a bill filed last month by Rep. Lou Lang, D-Skokie, seeks to make it permanent as part of a plan to stabilize the pension system.

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