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Editorial: Madigan’s bill is best plan for fixing pensions

Michael Madigan

Michael Madigan

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Updated: June 2, 2013 6:19AM

Eight weeks ago, under the headline “Make it happen, Mike,” we urged House Speaker Michael Madigan to lead the state toward passage, finally, of a comprehensive pension cost-cutting bill.

On Tuesday, Madigan delivered.

He took ownership of the most important issue confronting this state. Madigan filed a sweeping reform bill that’s expected to move in a way only a Madigan bill can: As of Wednesday morning, it had already passed a House committee 9-to-1. It will likely face a floor vote as early as Thursday.

Madigan’s bill appears to be Illinois’ best shot at loosening the strangulation grip of a $98 billion pension debt. No legislators should miss the chance to support it.

The bill is closely modeled after one we have strongly favored, a package of carefully crafted reforms to four state retirement systems. It was advanced by a bipartisan group led by Rep. Elaine Nekritz, House Minority Leader Tom Cross and Sen. Daniel Biss. Though we are still digesting details, the bill includes the same core elements, which add up to substantial savings and a fully funded system by 2044.

These include raising the retirement age, increasing employee contributions, reducing cost-of-living increases for retirees and giving retirement systems a new right to sue if the state fails to make its payments.

The bill inflicts pain but does it in a fair and targeted way. This includes raising the retirement age but shielding older workers and preserving a compounding COLA on the core of a retiree’s annuity. Madigan’s bill adjusts the latter, allowing some retirees to receive larger COLAs than under the Nekritz bill. Madigan also dropped a bid to shift the cost of paying for teacher pensions from the state to school districts. That’s regrettable but reflects a political reality.

Illinois has put off pension reform for years. A key reason is fear of running afoul of a clause in the state Constitution that protects benefits. Senate President John Cullerton is adamant that benefits cannot be changed unless workers are offered something in return. We respect this view but don’t believe the plan he favors saves enough to rescue the state’s retirement systems, nor is it the only legal option. Cullerton, who is at work with the state’s unions on an alternate bill, deserves much credit for his efforts, but it’s time to rally behind the bill that gives Illinois the best shot at true solvency.

That is Madigan’s bill.

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