SPRINGFIELD — A solution to Illinois’ pension mess remained on life support Monday after members of the House quit for the day with too few votes to move forward.
Inaction in the General Assembly’s lower chamber came hours after a House panel endorsed a sweeping revamp of the state’s employee retirement systems as part of an 11th-hour fix to the state’s most vexing financial problem.
The measure, which is designed to reduce the state’s $96 billion unfunded liability by $30 billion, was approved by members of the House Personnel and Pensions Committee on a 6-3 vote.
But success at the committee level does not always translate into success in the full House.
Sponsors said Monday afternoon that they were still trying to count noses and twist arms in hopes of rescuing the compromise proposal before the clock runs out on the current General Assembly.
If approved by the full House, the Senate would have to return to the Capitol Tuesday and then act quickly on the measure before a new General Assembly is sworn in at noon Wednesday.
Senate leaders were unsure of whether they would bother calling members back to Springfield.
“Senators are on standby until we see action from the House on pensions,” said Rikeesha Phelon, spokeswoman for Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago.
“It would be frustrating if we don’t get this done,” said House Minority Leader Tom Cross, R-Oswego.
Without the changes, Gov. Pat Quinn says funding for state programs such as universities, mental health treatment and child welfare services will continue to be squeezed.
“The numbers required to solve the problem are enormous,” said Dick Ingram, executive director of the Teachers’ Retirement System, the state largest pension system,
The proposal is designed to fully fund the state’s massively underfunded pension systems within 30 years by forcing employees and retirees to accept fewer benefits and pay higher costs.
Retirees currently receive a 3 percent cost-of-living adjustment that legislative leaders say is unsustainable.
Under the plan, those increases would be put on hold for six years. After that, the increases would apply only to the first $25,000 of a retiree’s pension. Going forward, those increases also would not kick in until a retiree turns 67.
Employees also would have to begin chipping in more money to the pension fund. Under the plan, they would have to pay an additional 2 percent of their salary toward their retirements. The increase would be phased in over two years.
The state also would be forced to pay its full share of its annual pension payment. A failure to ante up the full amount in prior years has led to the shortfall and to threats by credit rating agencies to downgrade the state’s bond rating.
Key to the latest progress was a decision last week by House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, to drop his demands that downstate and suburban school districts pay a larger share toward teacher pensions.
GOP lawmakers had balked at that provision, saying it would lead to higher property taxes throughout downstate.
The revamped proposal, however, still drew criticism from some Republicans, who said it also should cover the retirement system for judges.
“I hope that there’s a change made that says, ‘Let’s make sure it’s all five of our pension systems.’ That would be something that would be much more acceptable for my support of the pension bill than what I presently see,” said state Rep. Dan Brady, R-Bloomington.
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State Rep. Adam Brown, R-Decatur, agreed.
“Obviously, the judges are getting off scot-free here. I think it’s a pretty good indicator, unfortunately, of how things have worked here in Illinois in the past,” Brown said.
Added state Rep. Keith Sommer, R-Morton: “This notion that the judiciary should be treated differently is absurd.”
The Senate already has approved a plan that affects the pensions of state employees and members of the General Assembly, but not teachers, university workers or judges. Cullerton said the pared-down proposal would serve as a template for additional changes if it passes constitutional muster.
The bill’s sponsor, state Rep. Elaine Nekritz, D-Northbrook, said she thinks the proposal would be found acceptable by the state’s highest court because the state is in a financial crisis.
But labor unions disagree, saying the proposal would violate a constitutional ban on diminishing employee retirement benefits.
“What we have here is an all out assault on employees,” labor attorney John E. Stevens said.
Rather than reducing benefits to retirees, the state should generate more revenue through higher taxes on certain businesses, the unions said.
Nekritz said the legislation is a “tough, but right choice.”
“The time is now to end the excuses,” Nekritz said.
The legislation is Senate Bill 1673.