Barrington-area state Rep. David McSweeney, R-Barrington Hills, joined a majority of his colleagues in the Illinois House last week in voting for a pension reform plan.
With the state Senate approving its own, separate pension reform measures, the question is, what kind of bill, if any, will make it to Gov. Pat Quinn’s desk in an attempt to reduce the state’s $96.7 billion unfunded pension liability?
House Bill 1165, approved March 21 on a 66-50 vote, caps the 3 percent annual cost-of-living adjustment for existing retirees to only the first $25,000 of income for four of the five state-run pension systems, excluding judges. It also pushes back the eligibility for COLA increases to age 67 or five years after retirement.
McSweeney voted in favor of this bill.
“COLA and the compounding of it is the big money,” McSweeney said. “We have to address that. The retirement age, that’s important. But the big money’s in the COLA and the compound.”
Senate Bill 1, which passed Wednesday on a 30-22 vote, would force downstate and suburban teachers to choose between getting a 3 percent COLA or state health insurance once they retire.
Sen. Dan Duffy, R-Lake Barrington, voted against this bill, sponsored by Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago. He instead backed a stronger pension bill by Sen. Daniel Biss, D-Skokie, that mirrors much of the House bill. Senate Bill 35 failed on a 23-30 vote, with three voting present.
Duffy said Cullerton’s bill “isn’t even a step forward.”
“It’s not pension reform. All it is is a political vehicle [Cullerton’s] using to say he put a check in the box on pension reform, that he did something,” Duffy said.
The House’s reform bill estimates far greater savings – $100 billion over 30 years – compared with the Senate bill, which would save an estimated $18 billion to $40 billion.
With last week’s action, McSweeney said he was more optimistic than ever that meaningful pension reform will get passed.
“This is the most optimistic I’ve been,” he said as he was leaving Springfield for the General Assembly’s extended spring break. “We had a very good March. In fact, [March 21] was by far my best day in Springfield. I was shocked.”
Some lawmakers are concerned that the bill passed by the House will be challenged by public employee unions in court. But McSweeney said that can’t deter legislators from taking action.
“Anything that we do is going to be challenged in court,” he said. “We face the ultimate impairment of benefits if we don’t change them. I’m trying to save these benefits. We’re just completely under water.”
Lawmakers likely will not take up pension reform again until at least late April. They adjourned last Friday for two weeks for spring break, and their main business for the first two weeks they return will be advancing bills on their third and final readings.
In that five-week period, the unfunded pension liability will grow by more than $500 million – or put another way, almost double the cuts to education proposed by Quinn in his 2014 budget.
“Unless we do pension benefits, education is going to take a hit,” McSweeney said.
Under Quinn’s budget, 19 percent of the state’s general fund will go to meet pension obligations. In 2008, pensions took up 6 percent of state spending.
• Shaw Media Group Editor Dan McCaleb contributed to this report.