Gov. Quinn lukewarm to state union employees pension plan
BY STEFANO ESPOSITO AND DAVE MCKINNEY Staff Reporters December 19, 2012 12:40PM
(From left) Michael Carrigan, president of the Illinois AFL-CIO, Ted Street, president of Illinois FOP, Dan Montgomery, president of the Illinois Federation of Teachers, (arms folded) Mike Shields, president of the Chicago FOP and Bill Potts of the SEIU are members of the “We Are One Illinois” coalition of unions representing public employees and retirees that released a study on the impact of benefit cuts at the Thompson Center Wednesday. | Rich Hein~Sun-Times
Updated: January 21, 2013 3:50PM
A bloc of unionized state employees and teachers Wednesday laid out their blueprint for tackling Illinois’ $96 billion pension crisis by offering to devote more of their paychecks toward their retirements and calling for an end to $2 billion in corporate tax breaks.
But Gov. Pat Quinn gave the idea little more than a lukewarm response while a top aide to Senate President John Cullerton (D-Chicago) said the unions’ plan falls far short of reducing the state’s vast reservoir of pension red ink.
The cornerstone of the We Are Illinois plan called for state government employees and suburban and downstate teachers to “gradually pay 2 percent more of their salaries into their pensions,” which the coalition says would raise $10 billion over 30 years.
In return, the unions want an “iron-clad guarantee” that the state will fund their pension plans in a fiscally responsible manner.
“We are here today to firmly rebut the allegations that public employees and their unions are unwilling to tackle the state’s pension problem,” said Michael Carrigan, president of the Illinois AFL-CIO.
The group also sought an end to $2 billion in “corporate tax loopholes,” though earlier efforts to reel in tax breaks for companies have failed to gain much legislative traction.
Speaker after speaker, who addressed reporters at the labor event at the Thompson Center, blasted Gov. Pat Quinn and state lawmakers, saying their plans to tackle the pension crisis are unconstitutional and betray workers who have earned their pensions.
“We strongly object to the campaign that Gov. Quinn is now waging that attempts to pit citizens who rely on (government) services against the public employees whose pensions were effectively short-changed over the years and decades to pay for them,” Carrigan said.
The union leaders also are asking for a summit in January to talk over the crisis with lawmakers and Quinn.
The General Assembly is expected to take up reforms to deal with the state’s $96 billion in unfunded pension obligations when lawmakers return Jan. 3 for a lame-duck session.
Last week, a major Wall Street credit rating agency indicated it could further lower Illinois’ rating on worries the state won’t fix the pension problem.
Quinn didn’t shoot down the unions’ proposal, but he stopped far short of embracing it during an appearance Wednesday morning in Cicero.
“We always want to look at everything. I think it’s useful to look at everybody’s ideas. We’ve been doing that really for more than a year. If there’s some good concepts there, we can incorporate them,” Quinn told reporters.
Pressed on whether he believed the unions were putting enough on the table, Quinn seemed to want more, saying essentially the public good trumps what unionized government workers want.
“We want to work with the labor unions and the employees groups as far as we can. But ultimately the taxpayers come first. And that’s what we have to do,” he said.
Asked about the union request for an ironclad guarantee that the state won’t skip pension payments, Quinn insisted that he’s adhered to that principle as governor.
“This governor, me, Pat Quinn, we’ve done that. I’m the first governor ever to really put in these huge amounts of money required by the law in order to fund the pension year by year. But I think I’m sounding the alarm that we can’t continue to do that under the current structure and have the kind of public safety we need, the kind of education we must have,” the governor said.
“Those are fundamental core priorities of the people of Illinois, and unless we reform the structure of the pension system, we’ll continue to see our investment in education, public health, public safety decline. And that’s not a good way to have a good state. We have to act now for the common good,” Quinn said.
The administration has been stymied in its efforts to cut corporate tax breaks. Earlier this year, the governor proposed ending a corporate income tax break enjoyed by oil companies with drilling rigs in the Gulf of Mexico.
The $75 million proposal passed the Senate but stalled in the House, illustrating how closing even seemingly, low-hanging tax loopholes can get bogged down in the state Legislature and casting doubts on the unions’ call for a broader assault on corporate tax breaks.
Cullerton spokeswoman Rikeesha Phelon said her boss was gratified the unions were offering up ideas, they fall significantly short of the $66 billion savings mark achieved by a Senate-passed plan that would curb automatic 3-percent cost-of-living increases for retired state workers and lawmakers.
“While we appreciate them coming to the table and offering solutions, I think we have concerns the proposal would not bring significant savings in comparison to the proposal the Senate president has promoted in the past,” she said.
As a side note, Phelon also refuted a report in Wednesday’s Capitol Fax political newsletter that her chamber was close to cutting January’s possible eight-day session by more than half.
“There hasn’t been a clear-cut agenda, a to-do list emerge yet [for the lame-duck session],” she said. “I suspect once that’s clear, we’ll know whether days should be knocked off our schedule. I suspect if there are, it could be one or two days off.”