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Rep. Nekritz says panel has agreed on framework for reducing the debt of Illinois’ public worker system.

September 29, 2013
By: Rick Pearson

A key member of a legislative panel charged with finding a way to fill Illinois’ worst-in-the-nation unfunded pension liability said Sunday that she believes it is “very likely” a plan to change state retirement benefits could be agreed upon to present to lawmakers next month.

State Rep. Elaine Nekritz of Northbrook, the House Democratic point person on pensions, said the legislative conference committee examining solutions to Illinois’ $100 billion public employee pension debt has continued its work unaffected by Gov. Pat Quinn’s move to take away legislative salaries until a proposal reaches his desk.

Still, Nekritz said that regardless of any plan ultimately forwarded to the full General Assembly, she expects it will be challenged in court as unconstitutional.

“We’re close enough where I think that there’s a definite possibility we could take action in veto session,” Nekritz said of the scheduled Oct. 22 return of the General Assembly.

“We have a few, what I would call, details to work out, but as in any negotiation, when you get to the end, the things that were not so significant in the beginning become big,” she said in a WGN-AM 720 interview. “So, I’m not saying that the whole thing can’t fall apart, and we’ll be back to square one, but it’s also very likely we could come to an agreement and be done in a couple of weeks.”

Nekritz had been reluctant to predict the progress of the 10-member legislative panel’s work. But she noted that the group has agreed on a framework that includes reducing 3 percent annual compounded cost-of-living adjustments in pensions to half of the consumer price index while reducing employee contributions.

While not giving specifics on outstanding issues before the panel, Nekritz said there are still ongoing discussions about whether there should be a minimum and maximum on annual pension increases based on inflation.

She acknowledged that the move for a 1 percentage point reduction in employee contributions to their pensions was aimed at meeting a state constitutional prohibition against diminishing or impairing public employee pension benefits.

Still, she said, “I don’t think there’s any way we can avoid being sued by the public employees — whether it be actives (current employees) or retirees.”

Nekritz said Quinn’s decision to veto legislators’ salaries until a pension plan was sent to his desk “was a distraction and really did not serve to push or hinder the work of the conference committee.”

On Thursday, a Cook County judge ruled Quinn violated the state constitution’s prohibition against changing legislators’ salaries during their elected term. The governor is appealing the ruling.

She said she had not spoken to anyone from Quinn’s office since July on the progress of pension negotiations.

“I know it’s been excruciatingly slow,” she said of the work of the panel, which held its first meeting in mid-July. “I think every member of the pension (conference) committee would say that it’s been excruciatingly slow, but that’s just been the difficulty of this negotiation.”

Nekritz acknowledged that public employees have paid their pension contributions while politicians for decades have not adequately paid the state’s employer share.

But she said, “To me the most immoral thing that could happen is to say to someone, a 75- or 80-year-old retiree, ‘I’m sorry, the system’s broke. I can send you no check.’ I would rather make the increases in their benefit going forward smaller and know that the system is secure so they know they’re going to get a check in the future.”

Copyright 2013 Chicago Tribune Company, LLC

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