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Top state lawmakers report deal on pensions

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SPRINGFIELD — Illinois’ legislative leaders reached a tentative agreement Wednesday to overhaul pension benefits for public school teachers, university employees, state workers and retirees.

The long-sought changes, which could be voted on as early as Tuesday, are designed to chip away at the nearly $100 billion shortfall in the state’s five retirement systems by reducing annual cost-of-living-adjustments for retirees and raising the retirement age for employees age 45 and younger.

“Bottom line, everybody in this country is living longer, they’re working longer,” said House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago.

In exchange for changing some benefits, current workers would see a reduction of 1 percent in what they pay toward their pensions.

Republicans won a key concession when Democrats who control the House and Senate agreed to allow the state to begin offering workers a separate 401(k)-style retirement savings plan.

Patty Schuh, a spokeswoman for Senate Republican Leader Christine Radogno, R-Lemont, described the deal as “comprehensive.”

Rank-and-file lawmakers are scheduled to return to the Capitol Tuesday for a one-day special session.

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Madigan said he was ready to begin persuading Democratic members to back the measure.

“It’s going to be a very difficult roll call,” Madigan told reporters in Chicago.

Republicans said Democrats who control the House and Senate likely have the votes to send the measure to Gov. Pat Quinn.

“I don’t believe they’d call us back without the votes,” said state Sen. Dave Luechtefeld, R-Okawville

After years of not paying enough into the retirement systems, the General Assembly has been laboring to hammer out a plan to correct the self-made problems.

But, support for the various changes has been hard to find among lawmakers who represent large numbers of state workers and retirees.

Luechtefeld and state Sen. Gary Forby, D-Benton, for example, have been staunchly opposed to reducing retirement benefits for the thousands of unionized prison workers, teachers and university employees they represent.

Luechtefeld said Wednesday he’ll be a “no” vote because he believes changing pension benefits is unconstitutional.

State Rep. Bill Mitchell, R-Forsyth, also has been concerned about the constitutionality of reducing benefits. But, on Wednesday, he wasn’t saying for sure that he was a “no” vote.

“I’m a little bit hesitant to talk about it until I see all of the details,” Mitchell said.

Quinn, who has been haranguing the legislature for over a year to get moving on a pension fix commended the leaders. In the coming days, he is expected to try and help convince reluctant lawmakers to back the plan.

“We have more work to do,” the governor said in a statement. “I look forward to working with the leaders and members of the General Assembly over the coming days to get this job done for the people of Illinois.”

A coalition of labor unions representing hundreds of thousands of public employees and retirees vowed to continue fighting the plan, saying they were not included in the leaders’ talks.

“If their new plan is in line with what’s been reported from earlier discussions, then it’s an unfair, unconstitutional scheme that undermines retirement security,” the We Are One coalition said. “It’s no compromise at all with those who earned and paid for their retirement benefits.”

Madigan said a key money-saving component of the agreement is a change in how the state calculates the annual COLAs received by pension recipients.

Rather than a 3 percent COLA compounded annually, the proposal would apply to a retirees years on the job, times $1,000. A 30-year veteran of the Department of Corrections, for example, would get a 3 percent annual COLA only on the first $30,000 of their pension.

“What we’re doing will benefit long term low income workers,” Madigan said.

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