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Senate backs union pension-reform package despite GOP opposition

Updated: May 9, 2013 6:13PM

SPRINGFIELD-The Illinois Senate put itself on a collision course with the House Thursday by approving a Democratic pension-reform package favored by unions despite opposition from Republicans and a clear signal from Gov. Pat Quinn it wasn't his preferred pension fix.

"This is not a bill that just helps us this year or next year. This will help us for the next 30 years, and we have to be practical. We have to pass a bill. This is the best chance to do so," said Senate President John Cullerton (D-Chicago), the measure's chief Senate sponsor.

His legislation, which passed the Senate 40-16 and moves to the House, would wipe away about $11.5 billion of the state's nearly $100 billion pension shortfall - savings that are barely a third of a competing alternative from House Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago) and now in the Senate's lap.

"The big problem with this bill is that it doesn't solve the problem," said Sen. Matt Murphy (R-Palatine), who like most Republicans voted against the plan.

The vote came after Quinn made clear his loyalties lie with the Madigan version of pension reform, not with what the Senate voted on Thursday.

The only Republicans to back Cullerton's effort were Sen. Chapin Rose (R-Mahomet), Sen. Pam Althoff (R-McHenry), Sen. Michael Connelly (R-Lisle) and Sen. Sam McCann (R-Carlinville).

The lone Democratic no-votes belonged to state Sen. Daniel Biss (D-Evanston), who helped author legislation similar to Madigan's, and state Sen. Heather Steans (D-Chicago).

At its core, Cullerton's plan gives existing government workers and downstate and suburban teachers and retirees different options that, in varying degrees, involve voluntarily giving up or delaying annual, compounding 3-percent cost-of-living increases in retirement in exchange for continued access to state-subsidized health care.

The proposal has the backing of the We Are One Illinois coalition of labor unions, which includes the Illinois AFL-CIO, AFSCME Council 31, the Illinois Education Association and the Illinois Federation of Teachers. That support means they won't wage a legal fight to torpedo the legislation on constitutional grounds, Cullerton said.

"We feel this bill, obviously, has strong, sound constitutional principles," Cullerton said. "Other versions of pension reform are riskier. And we know there's going to be litigation. For sure, having these unions who represent public employees supportive is very helpful."

But the top Senate Republican said lawmakers shouldn't be bound by arguments that one pension-reform plan is more or less constitutional than another - that the bottom line is which saves the state more money.

"It is not our job to be the judiciary," said Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno (R-Lemont), who voted no and voiced support for the Madigan plan. "There are good legal arguments on both sides. I think our job is to pick the plan that does the most to stabilize the system and ensure our retirees will get the most money we can possibly provide to them going forward....This is not the bill that saves the most money for the people in this state."

Supporters within Cullerton's Democratic caucus said members of those public-employee unions had moral standing above the business groups and newspaper editorial boards arguing for harsher pension cuts and deserved input in fixing the state's pension mess even though they didn't cause it.

"You can make your choice," said state Sen. Linda Holmes (D-Aurora), who voted for the plan. "Do you want to be so-called fiscally responsible or do you want to be morally bankrupt and cheat the people who have helped us as a state for decades and take away the promises, the absolute promises, that we made?"

The legislation's fate is unclear in the House, which began work Thursday on a politically divisive plan to make downstate and suburban school systems pick up the state's tab for paying for educators' pensions.

After a hearing on that cost-shift concept, Madigan reiterated his backing for the House-backed pension-reform plan and predicted his plan would be the one to reach Quinn's desk.

"I think the Senate ought to pass what the House did, and I think they will," the speaker told reporters.

Asked his approach toward the Senate-passed bill, Madigan dodged the question: "Haven't decided."

Meanwhile Thursday, Quinn gave a nod to Madigan's approach, refusing to give his seal of endorsement to the Cullerton plan and repeatedly telling reporters the Senate should vote on the Madigan plan.

"I was very impressed by the fact that the principles I annunciated more than a year ago for comprehensive pension reform were contained in [Madigan's bill], and that passed the House last week. And I want to make sure [the bill] gets a vote in the Senate by the end of the month," Quinn told reporters after a ceremony honoring the state's firefighters in Springfield.

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