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Local legislators opt out of pensions

Published: Thursday, July 17, 2014 2:43 p.m. CDT • Updated: Friday, July 18, 2014 6:43 a.m. CDT

One of the first moves state Rep. David McSweeney made after assuming office in January 2013 was completing paperwork to opt out of the pension system, he said.

“I think this is a part-time job,” McSweeney said, “and with all the financial problems the state has, I don’t think legislators deserve pensions.”

As Illinois continues to grapple with pension reform in the midst of heavy financial woes, McSweeney, R-Barrington Hills, is joined in his decision by an increasing number of state legislators.

He is among a group of more than 20 known Illinois lawmakers forgoing pensions entitled to them through the General Assembly Retirement System, according to Reboot Illinois. McSweeney said he’s hoping to set an example.

“I would certainly encourage people to follow, and I think others are doing it,” he said.

Those opting out are state representatives and senators, Democrats and Republicans. However, almost none of the legislators on the list have taken their current offices earlier than 2011. The exception is Sen. David Luechtefeld, R-Okawville, who took office in 1995.

Upon entering into the legislature, members are “basically put into the plan automatically,” according to Tim Blair, executive secretary of the State Retirement System.

Those who have opted out had to do so within a 24-month period after becoming a member, Blair said, adding after two years, members no longer have the option to forgo the pension system.

Having assumed office in 2013, state Rep. Barbara Wheeler, R-Crystal Lake, became aware she was still able to opt out during an interview with the Northwest Herald for this story.

Within minutes, Wheeler said she had paperwork moving to get herself off the plan.

“I think people have to make their own individual decisions on this,” she said, “but I’m glad the option was still available to me.”

State Rep. Mike Tryon, R-Crystal Lake, took office in 2005 and, therefore, no longer has the option to opt out.

He echoed Wheeler, saying it’s the type of decision each person has to make on their own and in their own best interest.

Given the current state of Illinois, Tryon said he expects this will become a much more discussed topic in the future.

“I don’t think it can change for someone who is already in,” Tryon said. “The question is can you change it going forward, and that’s a whole new debate.”

State Sen. Karen McConnaughay, R-St. Charles, said it makes sense that newer legislators are opting out as pensions have been a high-priority issue among constituencies during the more recent elections.

McConnaughay, who also has opted out of the pension plan, assumed office in 2013.

“I’ve voted for all the more aggressive reform bills because I believe we have to take aggressive action to turn the state around,” she said. “I think it’s important, as a legislator, that I set an example.”

State Rep. Jack Franks, D-Marengo, is not on the list of those opting out. Having been put in the system automatically upon entering the legislature in 1999, Franks no longer has the option to forgo his pension.

Franks said pension issues were not as prevalent when he was first elected as they have been the past few years.

“It’s just recently that they’ve started to do this,” Franks said. “Those of us that were already in for years, this wasn’t a problem until a few years ago.”

Since taking office, however, Franks said he has been proactive in trying to eliminate pensions for legislators.

“I don’t think we should be doing pensions for part-time positions,” he said. “I’ve filed bills on this, and I’ll continue to.”

Franks said pension reform, however, will likely stay in limbo until the Illinois Supreme Court makes a ruling on whether the pension law, signed by Gov. Pat Quinn in December, is constitutional.

The law moves to reduce retirees’ benefits and raise the retirement age.

State Sen. Dan Duffy, R-Lake Barrington, who took office in 2009 and is not on the list, was out of town and declined comment.

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Should legislators opt out of their pensions?
Yes, it will save the taxpayers money
Yes, but this just a symbolic gesture
No, they've earned it
It's not my decision, should be up to each individual

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