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Pension bill fizzles, but ‘grand bargain’ is ‘still on track’

Illinois Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno, R-Lemont, talks with Illinois State Sen. Dale Righter, R-Mattoon, on the Senate floor prior to Senate Bill 11, the pension reform bill, coming up for a vote at the Illinois State Capitol, Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2017, in Springfield, Ill. (Justin L. Fowler/The State Journal-Register via AP)

SPRINGFIELD — Putting a snag in the plan to try to pass 12 “grand bargain” budget bills, the Illinois Senate on Wednesday failed to pass a pension reform bill — with a top GOP leader calling the vote a “breach of our agreement.”

The bill had just 18 senators voting yes, and 29 voting no. Ten voted present. And there was no Republican support. Republicans voted either “no” or “present.”

Speaking on the Senate floor, Republican Leader Christine Radogno called the bill’s vote “sort of out of the blue” and a “breach of our agreement,” but the Lemont Republican later told reporters the plan is “still on track.”

“Our caucus wanted everything nailed down before we called the first bills,” Radogno said. “We talked about a piecemeal approach and it was the consensus of the caucus that we didn’t want to do that.”

The bill would create savings by allowing public sector employees to choose whether their benefits are related to raises they may get or to annual cost of living adjustments to their pensions during retirement.

It covers university employees, public school teachers, General Assembly members and Chicago teachers. Retirees and judges are not covered. And other state employees are currently not part of the plan because of ongoing legal action with their contract.

There are procedural ways to get the bill’s language into another bill. And three other “grand bargain” measures that passed the Senate on Wednesday will hold in the Senate before going to the House to ensure all 12 bills are tied together.

There were no plans to call any of the other bills during session on Thursday.

“I think we can always re-vote on the pension bill, which went down. Obviously they need our help on that one,” Radogno said. “We’re prepared to deliver that on significant pension reform, as well as the others. So I think [a] little drama but not the end of the world.”

The pension reform vote marked the first failure of the “grand bargain” package, which also includes an income tax hike, workers’ compensation reform and a temporary property tax freeze.

Illinois Senate President John Cullerton too tried to paint a rosy picture of the bill’s failure — saying he at least now knows what support he has and doesn’t have for the measure. He called it a “misunderstanding” with Radogno and said he intended to call a bill to get CPS $215 million for its teacher pensions, after the pension reform vote.

“I needed to call the pension reform bill in order to first see how many Democrats I have. Because unions are working against it,” Cullerton said. “I had to make the point that it’s tied to teacher pensions parity bill.”

Cullerton said he had been in meetings with Radogno throughout the last few days, making “counter-offers” on the workers’ compensation and education funding bill.

Those are among the most contentious in the plan, along with the revenue bill.

“I got 18 votes on it. And that’s 18 votes with the unions opposing our pension reform bill. She can easily get 12 votes on the pension reform bill,” Cullerton said.

Organized labor opposes the plan because they believe employees will lose benefits — and they don’t want to hand Rauner a win.

Earlier on the Senate floor, Cullerton urged Republicans to vote for the pension reform bill, reminding them Rauner had supported the measure.

“I know that the first few bills the Republicans have so far voted present, but I wish they would take exception to this bill. There’s a little bit of history here. This is a pension reform bill. This is a bill that I negotiated with our governor. He has asked me on numerous occasions, ‘Where is your bill? Please introduce your bill. Vote on your bill.’ And we put it in this package for that purpose.”

Radogno was not on board with a vote on the bill, saying there was talk about passing the “low hanging fruits” where there was agreement.

“This is a very major piece of legislation. It needs to be tied to the other pieces,” Radogno said. “So I think this is a breach of our agreement and I would ask people to vote present.”

The Senate leaders had publicly pushed for a vote on the package for this week, which Cullerton noted. Last month, Radogno pushed for a Feb. 1 deadline, which came and went as special interest groups, businesses and lawmakers pushed for changes to some of the most controversial bills.

Earlier, the Illinois Senate passed three of the grand bargain bills — procurement reform, local government consolidation and a “special purpose entities” bill to allow home municipalities to dedicate tax revenues in order to secure a lower interest rate for borrowing.

On Thursday, Illinois House Democrats will try to pass a bill to ensure state workers get paid through the end of the fiscal year. That comes after Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan filed a motion to try to halt state worker pay without a budget by the end of February. House Republicans have sponsored a competing measure with could make state worker salaries a “continuing appropriation,” allowing them to be paid even without a budget.