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Lawmakers should approve the pension funding overhaul bill: Brown

Updated: January 4, 2014 6:30AM



There are times in public life when elected officials have to lay the political risks aside to stand up and be counted.

This will be one such day for members of the Illinois General Assembly, who will stand tallest if they vote to approve the pension funding overhaul endorsed by their legislative leaders and Gov. Pat Quinn.

Legislators should support the bill, which has the potential to substantially improve the financial health of the state’s pension system, and in turn, stabilize the state’s overall finances.

Although I can’t promise we won’t be back here having this same discussion in another five years even if it is approved, I can tell you that many people of goodwill who have put a lot of effort into finding a solution believe this will work.

Success will require future lawmakers and governors following through on the bill’s roadmap. That’s always a big if, but this legislation goes further than any previous pension reform effort in Illinois to set a course that will make backtracking difficult.

I doubt there’s anyone for whom this will be an easy vote, with opponents already firing salvos from the left and the right.

It certainly will not be easy for Democratic lawmakers, who control both chambers and therefore will be asked to put most of the affirmative votes on the board even though that will require defying their friends in organized labor.

As will be plain before this day is out, plenty of Republican officeholders abide by the wishes of the unions representing government workers as well, although they may end up hiding behind conservative demands for even more drastic anti-union measures.

Toss in the gamesmanship created by a Republican gubernatorial primary, and you can expect GOP lawmakers to be ducking for cover Tuesday.

For that reason, I give Sen. Bill Brady, the 2010 GOP nominee, a lot of credit for standing up right away to say that he supports the bill.

Brady, a conservative, has been directly involved in negotiations on this issue for more than a year now, and he represents plenty of university employees who will be negatively impacted.

But instead of looking for excuses to vote against it as some of his colleagues are doing, he joined Senate Republican Leader Christine Radogno in endorsing the bill.

It’s no surprise businessman Bruce Rauner, another Republican candidate for governor, opposes the measure, which undercuts one of his key campaign issues. At least Rauner has been consistent in saying all along that what we really needed is to freeze state pensions and switch all the employees to a 401k-style system, and that he would be against anything short of that.

Maybe Rauner thinks he can just impose his ideas Scott Walker style, but I don’t see any way of getting his plan approved by the Legislature.

Others like state Treasurer Dan Rutherford will say the pension deal violates the state’s constitutional guarantee protecting the pension benefits of public employees.

The Illinois Supreme Court may very well agree with him.

It’s time to find out one way or another, which is another reason to go ahead and pass this legislation.

Let there be no doubt: this bill attempts to fix the state’s grossly underfunded pension system largely on the backs of those public employees, who will receive less in retirement than they had been promised.

This is absolutely not a piece of legislation the unions want to see approved. This is not their idea of pension reform.

Yet, as legislators — and Supreme Court justices ­— look at the bill’s provisions, they will see that somebody at the bargaining table was clearly trying to craft a bill that is fair to public employees.

The legislation basically saves money by reducing the annual cost of living adjustments that currently are a main factor in driving up pension costs and by increasing the retirement age.

On both matters, state workers will still be in good position compared to private sector workers, and care was given to treat older workers better than younger ones.

While I don’t like to see any working people hurt, the fact is that Illinois simply can’t afford the pension promises made to its government workers.

Tellingly, the constitutional protection on which public employees will now place their reliance, assuming the legislation is approved, does not extend those same protections to private sector workers, who have been absorbing worse hits to their retirement plans for decades.

This is also not the time to get hung up on procedural issues such as whether the bill has received a proper public airing. The political debate has lasted more than a year. It’s time to count the votes.

Email: mbrown@suntimes.com

Twitter: @markbrowncst



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