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March 20, 2013
By: Dave McKinney & Zach Buchheit

SPRINGFIELD — A scaled-back plan by Senate President John Cullerton to make suburban and Downstate teachers choose between keeping a compounding, 3 percent annual pension boost or state-subsidized health insurance as retirees eked out of the Senate on Wednesday.

The proposal, which applies only to working members of the Teachers’ Retirement System — not current retirees — passed the Senate on a 30-22 roll call vote. It was the first pension-reform measure to pass the Senate this spring.

Cullerton’s bill now moves to the House, which last week took a pair of incremental steps by sending the Senate bills to increase the retirement age and cap the size of pensions.

“It’s not often you can push a green button and save $18 to $40 billion over the next 30 years,” Cullerton said, referring to the green voting switch senators use to cast “aye” votes. “We need to start with pension reform. We need to pass a bill over to the House, put them on notice we’re serious.”

Cullerton’s approach, which was fast-tracked Wednesday, involved scaling back an earlier version of Senate Bill 1 that he had pushed. Originally, his plan represented a hybrid of House and Senate pension-reform packages.

The plan Cullerton (D-Chicago) settled on affected only one of the state’s five retirement systems and applied only to teachers still in the classroom after next January — not retirees. It aims trim $5 billion off the state’s $96 billion pension tab and reduce state payments to TRS by $18 billion over 30 years.

A Cullerton aide said other retirement systems would be brought up for individual pension votes on the Senate floor in a bid to pass “comprehensive” pension reform this spring.

Cullerton defended the constitutionality of his plan, saying it could withstand a legal challenge because it would give teachers the choice of voluntarily give up their pension perk in the compounding, annual cost-of-living adjustment rather than taking it away.

“This measure, I have advanced because I believe it’s constitutional. It has the strongest argument to being constitutional, and if we were to pass a bill that was unconstitutional, it would be a year before we’d find that out, and we’d have lost a year of savings,” Cullerton said. “That’s what I’m trying to avoid by advancing a bill that I think is fair.”

His strategy to use health care as a chit gained momentum Tuesday when a Sangamon County judge ruled that state-subsidized health care for government retirees is not a constitutionally protected benefit, as pensions are.

The legislation took two tries to pass the Senate on Wednesday. The first time, it failed 29-22 , with four members voting “present.” In keeping it alive through a parliamentary maneuver, Cullerton got Sen. Dave Koehler (D-Peoria) to switch his “present” vote to a “yes” vote, enabling it to meet the 30-vote threshold needed for Senate passage.

Koehler said he “had some problems with the bill” but gave Cullerton his word that he would be the 30th vote if retired teachers weren’t included. Koehler said he had difficulty making his voting switch work on the first vote, and he vowed that he got nothing in return from Cullerton for his vote.

“I’m not that smart,” Koehler joked. “I always fall on the sword, and I get nothing for it.”

Here’s what the successful roll call looked like:
Republicans opposed the plan, saying it doesn’t include state workers, university employees or lawmakers and barely makes a dent in the state’s $96 billion pension crisis.

“I’m not sure what a piecemeal approach will do for our efforts in the long run,” said Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno (R-Lemont). “We have to have a comprehensive solution.”

Passage of Cullerton’s plan came after the Senate voted down the “comprehensive” approach Radogno and Republicans favored: a plan by state Sen. Daniel Biss (D-Evanston) to reel in cost-of-living adjustments for retirees and delay when they would begin; increase the retirement age for existing workers, and withhold more from their paychecks to pay for pensions.

It failed 23-30, with three “present” votes, as eight members of Cullerton’s leadership team voted either “no” or “present.” Most in the Senate Republican caucus voted for the Biss plan.

“I believe this is as equitable of a solution as we can achieve,” Biss said.

Copyright © 2013 — Sun-Times Media, LLC

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