suntimes
COMFY 
Weather Updates

Pension-reform package collapses in Illinois House

Illinois House Minority Leader Tom Cross R-Oswego testifies during House Pensicommittee hearing Illinois State Capitol Thursday May 31 2012 Springfield

Illinois House Minority Leader Tom Cross, R-Oswego, testifies during a House Pension committee hearing at the Illinois State Capitol Thursday, May 31, 2012 in Springfield Ill. Illinois lawmakers struggle to finish what may be their most productive legislative session in years. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman)

storyidforme: 31375221
tmspicid: 11418343
fileheaderid: 5213858

Updated: July 6, 2012 9:48AM



SPRINGFIELD — A hulking pension reform package pushed by Gov. Pat Quinn and House Minority Leader Tom Cross collapsed late Thursday, leaving the last big issue of a productive spring legislative session a casualty of partisan bickering and a heavy union pushback.

Cross (R-Oswego), who took over sponsorship of the pension package Thursday after House Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago) abruptly dropped it a night earlier, announced the measure wouldn’t be called for a vote before lawmakers concluded their spring session.

“The governor’s office asked me this afternoon not to call the bill, and I’ve agreed to do that. It doesn’t do us any good to fight. We have a problem. We need to take a break,” Cross told colleagues in the House.

“We need to let emotions settle down. We need to be able to find some common ground on some issues, and I’m certainly willing to do that,” Cross said.

The surprise development now means Quinn and the General Assembly face a potentially protracted, election-year battle over how to reel in the state’s massive pension problems and the possibility that state borrowing costs could rise if bond-rating agencies frown upon Springfield’s inertia.

“As I have repeatedly made clear, inaction on pension reform is not a choice,” Quinn said in a prepared statement. “We must fundamentally reform our pension system, and we must enact bold reform that eliminates the unfunded liability.”

The governor said he intends to call the four legislative leaders together for a meeting “in the coming week so we can forge a pension reform agreement as soon as possible and return to Springfield to enact it into law.”

The pension plan began listing badly around mid-day Thursday after Madigan indicated he wouldn’t support it. He and Cross were dug in on an ideological dispute over whether suburban and Downstate school districts should partly relieve the state of the funding load for teacher and administrator pensions.

“He said he wouldn’t support that form of the bill and believes we should have the shift to have the local school districts who make decisions about salaries and others who make decisions about investments be responsible for those choices,” Madigan spokesman Steve Brown said of his boss.

During a brief floor speech late Thursday, Madigan sidestepped the acrimony with Cross — even thanking him at one point for a productive legislative session — while warning members to be prepared to return to Springfield for a special legislative session to deal with pensions.

But in doing so, despite the dour outcome on pensions, Madigan served up a joke about the conditions under which lawmakers could qualify for taxpayer-paid housing and food allowances, known as “per diems,” if they’re forced back to Springfield to deal with the issue.

“Just by way of information, if the governor calls the special session, why the members will get their per diem allowance. If the special session is called by the presiding officers, then the members will not get the allowance so you can express your hopes to yourself,” Madigan told the chamber, prompting laughter.

“We’re all very disappointed that we did not resolve the pension question before the Legislature,” he said.

Aimed at fixing the nation’s most underfunded pension system, the package sought to erase more than $80 billion in unfunded liabilities by having current and retired state workers, Downstate and suburban teachers, university and community college employees and state legislators accept less generous annual pension increases.

If workers and retirees agreed to relinquish an automatic 3-percent cost-of-living increase each year, they could keep state-subsidized health insurance as retirees, and current workers could continue to have future pay increases factored into their pensions.

With the need to reach at least 60 votes in the House, Cross said he had 30 Republicans lined up, putting the onus on Democrats to come up with the balance before a midnight deadline when lawmakers are scheduled to adjourn their spring session. After Cross pulled the plug on his plan, the Senate passed by a 30-24 vote a smaller pension reform that only targeted workers in state agencies and in the General Assembly but not university or community college employees or Downstate and suburban teachers.

Though the House adjourned before taking it up, Senate President John Cullerton (D-Chicago) Cullerton’s bill involved the same framework as what the House was considering on a broader scale — encouraging workers and retirees to accept lower post-retirement cost-of-living increases each year in exchange for having state health care.

“This bill is constitutional,” said Cullerton, the bill’s chief Senate sponsor.

While his approach had backing from Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno (R-Lemont) and 2010 GOP gubernatorial candidate Bill Brady, others in the conservative bloc of the GOP caucus ridiculed the more modest pension offering Cullerton put on the table.



© 2014 Sun-Times Media, LLC. All rights reserved. This material may not be copied or distributed without permission. For more information about reprints and permissions, visit www.suntimesreprints.com. To order a reprint of this article, click here.