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For sake of higher education, fix pension bill error now

FILE - In this July 10 2012 file phoiconic University Illinois statue AlmMater created 1929 by artist Lorado Taft is

FILE - In this July 10, 2012 file photo, the iconic University of Illinois statue Alma Mater, created in 1929 by artist Lorado Taft, is seen on campus in Urbana, Ill. A famous bronze sculpture could return to the campus in April 2014 after undergoing a $360,000 restoration. The five-ton sculpture was removed in 2012 and has been undergoing extensive repairs for water damage and corrosion. (AP Photo/The News-Gazette, Darrell Hoemann, File) MANDATORY CREDIT ORG XMIT: ILCHN501

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Updated: May 23, 2014 6:14AM

When Illinois legislators finally pushed through a large and complicated pension reform bill last December, they generally agreed that revisions would be off-limits until the courts had a chance to rule on the constitutionality of their handiwork. Follow-up tweaks to bills are common, but lawmakers were wisely loath to reopen a bill that required so many deals and compromises to get done in the first place.

But one error in the bill is so serious and pressing that it must be fixed, and quickly. The error — a drafting mistake that set a key date in 2013 instead of 2014 as intended — would trim university pensions so severely that top professors might begin fleeing in droves before the end of June.

If not fixed, experts warn us, the incorrect date in the bill also undercuts the legal argument that this pension reform law is constitutional because now — unintentionally — it calls for retroactive cuts. This could be viewed by the courts as a violation of the Illinois Constitution’s ban on reducing pension benefits.

Participants in the State University Retirement Systems already knew that, as a result of December’s pension reform, they would receive reduced cost-of-living adjustments, that the COLA would be temporarily suspended for future retirees, that pensionable earnings would be capped, that those under age 45 would have their retirement age postponed and that there would be other changes.

What they didn’t know is that a change in the “money purchase option” could cost some employees hired before 2005 nearly a third of their retirement income. But, university officials say, unless the dating error in the bill is corrected — and June 30, 2013, is changed to June 30, 2014 — that will happen. University employees in all positions, from professors to building service workers, will be affected.

“A lot of people are going to be financially harmed by it, and rather than take that risk, a lot of people are talking about retiring and leaving the university,” said University of Illinois spokesman Thomas Hardy.

Since the beginning of the year, more than triple the usual number of employees have inquired about retirement options, Hardy said. Of the U. of I.’s 5,700 employees who are eligible for retirement on its three campuses, the glitch could affect 60 percent to 70 percent.

Illinois has spent decades building up its public university system, including community colleges, and the future of the state depends on protecting the quality of higher education. Nobody wants to see top scholars rushing for the exit, taking their research grants and graduate assistants with them.

The University of Illinois board of trustees voted Friday to ask legislators to change the law, and we hope Springfield is listening. Lawmakers have known of this problem for a couple of months, but have been hesitant to act.

Time is running out.

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