SPRINGFIELD — The Illinois Senate on Thursday again endorsed a limited fix to the state’s massively underfunded retirement systems, but it remains unclear if any significant pension reform legislation will emerge during the lame-duck session.
Just hours before the Senate vote, the Statehouse had been packed by teachers and state workers from throughout Illinois opposing the Senate proposal, as well as other pension reform measures pending before the General Assembly.
Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago, said the Senate plan — first approved in May, but never taken up in the House — needed two small “technical” clarifications before the House could take it up when members return on Sunday for the final three days of the lame-duck session.
Cullerton told the Senate he is urging House members to pass the Senate proposal, which only makes changes to two of Illinois’ state pension systems — the state employees retirement system and the General Assembly’s own retirement system.
Cullerton said reforming the two systems could serve as a “template” for the eventual reform of state retirement systems for public school teachers and university faculty and staff.
But a large group of teachers, professors, state employees and retirees swarmed the Statehouse to rally against all the current pension reform proposals.
Thursday’s rally was organized by We Are One Illinois, a coalition of unions representing teachers, university faculty and staff, and state employees, including the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.
AFSCME Council Staff Representative Christopher Hooser from Decatur said the rally drew about 1,000 people.
With Gov. Pat Quinn pushing for a pension deal by a Jan. 9 deadline, the union coalition has its own three-element pension overhaul. First, current employees would pay 2 percent more of their annual salary toward their pensions. Second, state leaders would have to guarantee that the state will make its required share of pension contributions. Third, state leaders should raise revenue by closing corporate tax loopholes.
“That way, it’s a shared sacrifice,” Hooser said. The proposals being considered by lawmakers are “all about taking it out of the workers’ pockets,” he said, criticizing state leaders who “created this mess.“
According to an analysis distributed by the coalition, the change to the cost-of-living adjustment proposed in one plan before the House “would leave retirees with a monthly check that is 25 percent less” than a retirement payment someone would receive under the federal Social Security’s inflation-indexed system.
The coalition analysis said the under this legislative proposal’s cost-of-living approach, “workers and retirees face a no-win, coercive choice.”
“My wife and I planned carefully for retirement and left a sensible cushion,” said John Kilgore, who taught English literature at Eastern Illinois University from 1978 to 2010, when he retired. His wife, Dollie, was a nurse at the student health center, and both receive pension benefits through the state’s university retirement system. Kilgore said any pension reform adjustments to medical insurance or the pension’s COLA provisions “is more than our budget can stand.“
He called the proposed choice between an unchanged COLA and health insurance premiums “both threatening and demeaning.”
Jim Duffy, who retired after teaching history for 33 years at Sterling High School, was one of about three dozen teachers and retirees gathered outside the door of the Senate to discuss pension protection with Sen. Mike Jacobs, D-East Moline.
Duffy said he has been talking with Jacobs for about a year “and I have a lot of confidence he’ll stand with us.“
The legislation is House Bill 5210.