May 31, 2012
By: Mike Riopell
SPRINGFIELD — After years of talks, months of negotiations and days of intense partisan fighting, an effort to try to repair the state’s deeply troubled public pension systems could be dying.
Agreements under the Capitol dome can be struck in an instant, but the closer the clock inches toward lawmakers’ midnight deadline, the clearer it becomes that the push to cut pension costs by reducing benefits for teachers and state workers could end in gridlock, at least for now.
“I’d still love to do it today,” said state Rep. Elaine Nekritz, a Northbrook Democrat. “But I’m losing hope.”
Progress ground to a halt when top Democrats abandoned a plan to have suburban school districts pay more for teachers’ retirements, which would have cost the school districts millions of dollars but saved money for the state. Republicans had staunchly opposed that provision. But cutting it also drew Democrats’ support away from the pension reform proposal, and because Democrats control the Illinois House and Senate, the legislation could be dead. The pension plan in play today, now sponsored by House Republican Leader Tom Cross of Oswego, would not shift pension costs to local schools. But it would have required school districts to pay pension costs associated with any salary increases given in the final years of teachers’ careers.
“We believe school districts ought to have a little skin in the game,” Cross said.
Democrats were deeply skeptical, peppering Cross with questions in a hearing this morning. They argued no one has yet done the math on Cross’ plan, and it’s unclear whether the idea would end up being even worse for school districts than a slowly phased-in transfer of pension costs. The pension plan debated this morning would cut a yearly cost-of-living pension increase for current and future retirees, targeting the single biggest factor in rising pension costs. As a group, the plan includes state workers, teachers, university employees and lawmakers. Judges would be exempt. It also would guarantee the state pay its share of pension costs every year. Delinquency in doing this over decades has largely caused the state’s pension mess.
If lawmakers can’t come to agreement on pension reforms tonight, it’s unclear when they’d next take a shot. Because of various rules and political complications, it could have to wait until 2013. Starting Friday, any legislation that takes effect immediately requires more votes — a tall order on a controversial proposal, especially one that doesn’t even appear to have a majority of support.