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House GOP wants pension bill change that SEIU calls fatal

Illinois House Minority Leader Jim DurkR-Western Springs looks before Illinois Gov. PQuinn delivers State Budget Address joint sessiGeneral Assembly House

Illinois House Minority Leader Jim Durkin, R-Western Springs, looks on before Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn delivers the State Budget Address to a joint session of the General Assembly in the House chambers at the Illinois State Capitol March 26, 2014 in Springfield Ill. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman)

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SPRINGFIELD — Divisions deepened Thursday over Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s stalled city pension legislation as the top House Republican called on the mayor to back away from his push to have state lawmakers sign off on Chicago property-tax hikes.

But one top labor official warned if higher property taxes aren’t part of the mix in Springfield, the mayor’s deal with 28 out of 31 unions at City Hall to fill roughly half of Chicago’s $20 billion pension hole could collapse.

House Minority Leader Jim Durkin, R-Western Springs, told Chicago Sun-Times’ Early & Often politics portal that he’s open to working with Emanuel to solve the city pension problem but urged the mayor to dump the property-tax language from the legislative discussion entirely.

“I’m prepared and willing to work with the Democratic majority to help Chicago get out of this financial tidal wave here. Clearly, the way this bill was drafted was not received well in the chamber,” Durkin said.

House Speaker Michael Madigan’s camp has made clear it wants Republican backing for the plan to bail out the city’s underwater Municipal Employees and Laborers retirement funds. But the GOP wants nothing to do with scheduled $50 million a year annual ramp-up in property taxes over five years to pay down the city’s monstrous pension debt.

In fact, some in Durkin’s caucus have derided the plan as a $750 million property-tax grab from city property owners and don’t believe state lawmakers, particularly in an election year, should be expected to sign off on tax increases the City Council has power to impose on its own.

“I had some members who had reservations about the bill [Wednesday]. It’ll ease their decision-making process if it was taken out,” Durkin said of the property-tax language contained in Madigan’s bill.

Madigan watered down his proposal after it passed out of a House committee Wednesday by making the property-tax component an optional revenue component for city aldermen.

Matt Brandon, secretary-treasurer of SEIU Local 73, said his union, which has about 10,000 members affected by the city pension plan, believes the property-tax guarantee should remain in the package.

“There has to be a revenue guarantee to make this bill the bill we sat down and agreed to with the city of Chicago,” Brandon told Early & Often.

“If what happens with this bill eliminates the revenue guarantee that all of the unions sat there and negotiated with the city, no, we can’t support this bill because that’s the only way we get the pensions 90-percent funded by 2054,” Brandon said.

“They have to do this to make sure the unions stay on this bill,” he said.

For rank-and-file Chicago Democrats in the House, another issue that has given some cold feet is opposition to the plan by the Chicago Teachers Union, which has several thousand members in the city municipal fund.

The CTU nearly ousted incumbent state Rep. Christian Mitchell, D-Chicago, in an expensive primary battle last month against a union-backed challenger, Jay Travis. One of the chief issues in that race was Mitchell’s December support for legislation reeling in state pensions.

Brandon, however, tried to calm that sentiment by telling reticent city Democrats his union — and others backing the mayor’s plan — would be with them come election time if they vote for the city pension package.

“What I’ve made sure to remind the members is that SEIU Local 73, in particular, worked directly with the CTU on the Jay Travis campaign. We took staff out. We had members out. We did in-kind. We donated to her campaign. We did mailings. So it wasn’t all CTU,” Brandon said.

“What I would remind or assure the members of is that CTU’s position is not all of the unions’ positions. When all the unions, when 28 out of 31 unions, put their big-boy pants on and stand up for what they said they’d agreed to, I think it will neutralize any impact CTU or any other union could have on the people who stand up for this bill,” he said.

Gov. Pat Quinn, meanwhile, made a pointed effort Thursday not to stick his neck out on the bill given the uncertainty surrounding it and the challenge he faces by Republican Bruce Rauner, who very likely would try to make Quinn wear the collar for city property tax hikes if he signed off on the package.

At an event at the DePaul University Student Center, Quinn declined to give an opinion on Emanuel’s pension-overhaul proposal, saying the proposal hasn’t taken final form.

“The bill hasn’t moved forward,” the governor told reporters. “We will look at the final version.”

A Madigan aide also refused to enter the debate over whether property taxes should or should not be part of the final city-pension package that gets presented to lawmakers.

“I think we’ll see what the city suggests,” said Madigan spokesman Steve Brown, who wouldn’t offer a sense of when exactly the House might vote on the plan.

“I’m not making any suggestions about anything,” he said. “I’m just saying we’re working on the roll call.”

Contributing: Sandra Guy

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