Some IL lawmakers refusing legislative pensions still collecting other pensions

2013-01-19T07:00:00Z Some IL lawmakers refusing legislative pensions still collecting other pensionsBy Kurt Erickson | kurt.erickson@lee.net pantagraph.com

SPRINGFIELD — The state’s inability to fix a massively underfunded employee pension system has led to a surge in the number of Illinois lawmakers saying they won’t accept legislative pensions.

But, their promises on the campaign trail don’t necessarily mean they’ll never get a state retirement check.

Take state Rep. Sue Scherer, D-Decatur, as an example.

On Thursday, the former Maroa-Forsyth grade school teacher issued a statement trumpeting her decision to forego joining the General Assembly Retirement System.

“As a candidate, I promised the people of this district that I would lead by example and say ‘no’ to this perk that legislators receive at the expense of working families,” Scherer said.

But, according to the Teachers Retirement System, Scherer is already collecting a $5,084 per month state pension check after retiring from her teaching job in May with 33 years of service.

That money, combined with her legislative salary, will put Scherer’s income at $128,854 this year, not counting any additional money she might earn if she chairs a House committee or serves in a leadership position.

In another statement issued Friday, Scherer wrote, “I’ve made it very clear that I believe lawmakers should be taking pay cuts, not pay raises. I have committed that I will vote to cut my own salary and the salaries of all lawmakers, because I believe it is the right thing to do.”

A review of candidate campaign pledges and data from the General Assembly Retirement System shows at least two dozen of the 177 members of the House and Senate have opted out of the General Assembly pension system.

Freshman Republican state Rep. Josh Harms of Watseka said he believes members of the General Assembly, who earn a base salary of $67,836, are overpaid. He said foregoing a pension will help him make clearer decisions on the financial future of the state.

“I think I’m set up to retain quite a bit of independence,” Harms said.

The maneuver, however, will not leave Harms without a state pension. Before joining the House on Jan. 9, he was a special education teacher earning about $43,000 annually. He remains a member of the Teachers Retirement System.

The decision by some lawmakers to not join the General Assembly retirement system has gained traction in recent years as the state’s pension woes have become a political flashpoint.

Timothy Blair, who oversees the General Assembly pension system, said he’s seen an uptick in recent years, but nothing like the increase this year.

“We used to have them once in a while, here and there,” Blair said.

Freshman state Sen. Andy Manar, D-Bunker Hill, who is a member of the State Employees Retirement System after previously working as a member of the Senate staff, also is not joining the General Assembly system.

State Sen. Dave Luechtefeld, R-Okawville, decided not to take a legislative pension when he first took office in the mid-1990s.

“What motivated me to do it was I didn’t want people to think I was doing this for the money,” Luechtefeld said.

Luechtefeld, a former teacher and basketball coach, is a member of the Teachers Retirement System. He said his TRS pension is not large.

“It may not have been the best financial decision, but I’m certainly going to get by. I’m happy. I’m satisfied,” Luechtefeld said.

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