Top Republican questions Quinn’s pension session
BY DAVE MCKINNEY Sun-Times Springfield Bureau Chief firstname.lastname@example.org August 5, 2012 8:26PM
Updated: September 7, 2012 6:10AM
SPRINGFIELD — The top House Republican is describing a Senate-passed pension-reform package that likely will be voted on later this month as a non-starter and questioned why Gov. Pat Quinn has only scheduled a one-day special session to solve Illinois’ $83 billion pension crisis.
House Minority Leader Tom Cross’ statements came as Quinn ratcheted up his PR machine Sunday to make the case for a mid-month breakthrough on pensions, releasing a study his administration prepared that purports the state’s pension costs would exceed what is spent on education by 2016 without major pension reform.
The Oswego Republican’s position is significant because it adds another layer of pessimism to Quinn’s call for a special legislative session Aug. 17 and suggests that Republicans won’t back efforts to pass the Senate-crafted pension plan that deals with only two of the state’s five retirement systems.
“At first glance, it doesn’t seem like it does a whole lot,” Cross said of the Senate plan during an interview with the Chicago Sun-Times. “It’s minimal compared to the real problem.”
Senate President John Cullerton (D-Chicago) has pushed for the House to vote on House Bill 1447, which passed the Senate during the closing hours of the spring legislative session.
It would apply to members of the State Employees Retirement System and General Assembly Retirement System but spare current downstate and suburban teachers and university workers and retirees.
The main thrust of the legislation would make workers and retirees choose between either continuing to get 3 percent cost-of-living increases to their pensions in retirement or keeping their state-subsidized health insurance.
It also steered clear of the main sticking point to Republicans: requiring downstate and suburban school systems to shoulder pension costs for their work forces.
A spokesman for House Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago) said the speaker intends on Aug. 17 to allow a vote on Cullerton’s bill but that it will require Republican votes to pass.
“We’ve always talked in terms of bipartisan roll calls to get some of these issues that are heavily opposed by the work force and by pension people,” Madigan spokesman Steve Brown said. “This would fall into that category as far as I can tell.”
Cross countered that Madigan, with his 63-vote majority in the House, could pass Cullerton’s bill strictly with Democratic votes by tweaking the legislation so that it doesn’t take effect immediately but rather after the first of next year. Then, only 60 votes are needed to pass a bill, instead of 71, as is now the case.
“Even the governor has said he wants to do something comprehensive, as have we. The speaker certainly — and I don’t say this in a daring way — has the capacity if he changes the effective date to pass [the Cullerton bill] on his own if he wants to. I can’t stop that,” he said.
Cross said he fears passing that legislation will take pension reform off the front burner without making a complete fix that includes suburban and downstate teachers and university employees and retirees from both groups.
“I believe we need to do a whole lot more. I think everything’s got to be included,” he said. “All the systems need to be on the table, and it needs — unfortunately because of the magnitude of the problem — to be very, very aggressive.”
Cross said he remains opposed to requiring the state pension shift to suburban and downstate school systems, as Quinn and Democrats want, and that he wasn’t swayed by the governor’s latest offer to phase in those pension costs to school systems over 12 years.
On Sunday, Quinn showcased a report prepared by his budget office that asserted school districts, under the phase-in of that pension cost-shift, would wind up paying $49 million in new pension costs next year.
But without a reform package that would reduce the state’s outlay to pensions, those same downstate and suburban school districts could see their dollars from Springfield cut by $152 million — money that instead would have to be diverted to state pension costs, the administration contended.
“Illinois cannot continue down this path at the expense of our children,” Quinn said in a prepared statement.
Cross, meanwhile, said ideas he’d like to see on the table include boosting employee contributions and keeping those under 67 from getting cost-of-living adjustments while leaving COLAs intact for younger retirees if their pensions are $30,000 or less. And perhaps new state hires should be offered only 401(k) types of plans, he said.
With so many moving parts, Cross said he finds it hard to believe an all-encompassing pension solution can emerge from what essentially amounts to an afternoon of work on Aug. 17, when Quinn’s special session starts at 1 p.m.
“We need to be down there. I think everybody’s focused on a couple hours on a Friday afternoon, I think it might take a little more time before or after that,” Cross said, adding that he’s willing to miss the Republican National Convention in Tampa in late August to hammer out a pension deal, if necessary.
“I think it’s that important. I don’t run the place. I’m the minority leader. That’s all I am. I’m not daring anybody or challenging anybody, but I’m willing to hang around, to stay there ’til we get this done,” he said. “If I have to miss the Republican convention, then I miss the Republican convention. I haven’t missed one in a long time, but this is the issue of the day.”