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Constitutionality of legislators’ pension proposal questioned

Illinois Rep. Daniel Biss D-Skokie left looks as  Illinois Rep. Elaine Nekritz D-Des Plaines speaks with reporters while Illinois

Illinois Rep. Daniel Biss, D-Skokie, left, looks on as Illinois Rep. Elaine Nekritz, D-Des Plaines, speaks with reporters while at the Illinois State Capitol Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2012, in Springfield Ill. A group of lawmakers offer new legislation to fix the state's crippling pension crisis and end bitter fighting over a multibillion-dollar issue that gets more expensive by the day. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman)

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Updated: January 7, 2013 1:30PM

SPRINGFIELD — Constitutional questions surfaced Wednesday with a new effort at pension reform pushed by more than 20 rank-and-file legislators frustrated that inaction on the state’s $95 billion pension crisis will lead Illinois into “financial oblivion.”

Drafted by Rep. Elaine Nekritz (D-Northbrook) and Rep. Daniel Biss (D-Evanston), new legislation would cut annual cost-of-living increases for retirees, make government workers pay more toward their retirement and hike the age when they can obtain full benefits.

Billed as a way to bring the state’s pension systems out of red ink in 30 years, the measure also would gradually shift the state’s pension costs for educators to the suburban and Downstate school systems that set their salaries.

That cost-shift idea has been problematic to top Republicans, who regard it as a potential $20 billion property tax hike for suburbia and Downstate and expressed continued concerns about its inclusion in the latest bill.

“The cost shift is problematic. I don’t want to be critical of this,” House Minority Leader Tom Cross (R-Oswego) told the Chicago Sun-Times, referring to the Nekritz-Biss plan. “But I do think there are a few constitutional issues here.”

An aide to Senate President John Cullerton (D-Chicago) also registered questions about how the idea stacks up to Illinois’ Constitution, which bars state pensions from being “diminished or impaired.”

“The Senate president is encouraged that members are identifying ways to capture the local share of pension costs from local school districts,” Cullerton spokeswoman Rikeesha Phelon said. “However, the larger proposal appears to impose unilateral pension reductions without offering voluntary acceptance by participants. We appreciate the efforts of Representative Nekritz and her colleagues, but we will take a closer look at the plan to see if it can be squared with the pension clause.”

Nekritz said it’s difficult to judge whether the plan she and the rank-and-file lawmakers put together — or any pension cutback plan — will pass constitutional muster.

“We looked at a lot of the opinions that are out there with regard to constitutionality, and I just don’t think any of us standing here today . . . can know in advance what seven Supreme Court justices will do,” she told reporters. “All any of us can do is put our best foot forward to make sure we give them something to say, ‘Yes, we think this is constitutional.’”

Meanwhile, Gov. Pat Quinn scored a significant legislative win when House Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago) refused to permit a vote on an override of the governor’s veto on state facility closures.

Quinn moved to strip out of the budget money that lawmakers wanted earmarked to keep prisons in downstate Tamms and Pontiac open, along with other state facilities.

The Senate voted to reinsert those funds, which Quinn wanted used instead to stave off layoffs of as many as 500 state child-welfare employees.

“Today is a victory for the taxpayers of Illinois,” the governor said in a prepared statement.

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