House pension package clears committee hurdle but later stalls

SHARE House pension package clears committee hurdle but later stalls
SHARE House pension package clears committee hurdle but later stalls

SPRINGFIELD-A bipartisan plan to solve the state’s $95 billion pension crisis creaked forward Monday, advancing out of a House panel amid union claims the plan is “illegal” but appearing to be well short of the votes necessary to pass the full chamber.

The House Personnel and Pensions Committee approved the package by a 6-3 vote Monday. That outcome positioned the legislation for a full House vote, but the House adjourned abruptly and the measure’s lead sponsor made clear the plan wasn’t legislative soup yet.

“Roll calls tend to be a little bit squishy, but we still have quite a ways, quite a bit of work to do,” said Rep. Elaine Nekritz (D-Northbrook), the bill’s chief House sponsor.

The inertia places Nekritz and her backers at the brink with the lame-duck legislative session winding down to a close most likely Tuesday though possibly as late as noon Wednesday.

And any hope that Senate President John Cullerton (D-Chicago) had of getting pension legislation he favors called in the House appeared to evaporate, with the chief sponsor there — state Rep. Kelly Burke (D-Chicago) — telling the Chicago Sun-Times she is “not going to do anything on it” before adjournment.

With the wheels seeming all but off hopes for a pension deal, the day started Monday with a bit of momentum as a plan put together by Nekritz and state Rep. Daniel Biss (D-Evanston) passed out of committee.

“To me, the choice is clear,” Nekritz told the committee. “The time is now to end the excuses and say yes to reform for our pension systems and to long overdue relief for our great state.”

Under the 175-page House bill, known as Senate Bill 1673, cost-of-living increases would be frozen for six years and disallowed for retirees until they reach 67.

Those retirement pension increases would be based on only the first $25,000 of a retiree’s pension; pensions would be capped at the Social Security wage base or an employee’s current salary, whichever is higher; employee pension contributions would jump by 1 percent of their wages for two years.

The House plan, which would fully fund the pension systems in 30 years, would apply to four of the state’s five pension systems and, most significantly, would not give existing workers or retirees a choice of accepting reduced pension benefits.

Unions lined up to fight the package, arguing it would not stand up in court because of constitutional protections against the impairment or diminishment of government pensions. But their criticism didn’t stop it from reaching the floor.

“While there’s truth to the statement the Constitution is not a suicide pact, what we have here is an all-out assault on employees,” said John Stevens, a lawyer for the We Are One Illinois labor coalition opposed to the pension deal.

The head of the Illinois Federation of Teachers, Dan Montgomery, called the language in the pension bill “illegal.”

“You’re considering plunging ahead with an illegal plan from our point of view that we would propose violates your oath of office, does not solve state’s fiscal or pension crisis and disrespects hundreds and thousands of public servants,” Montgomery told the panel.

“Passing this law will only make matters worse. We will be caught up in court, expensive, with no solutuion for at least a year or more. In the meantime, the pension mess stands to get worse,” he said, calling along with other labor unions for a “summit” to hash out an acceptable pension package.

But the top House Republican leader said the time has come to act, given that various versions of pension-cut legislation have been stymied in the House for the past two years while the state’s pension hole kept growing deeper.

“The pointing of fingers of whose fault it is has got to stop,” said House Minority Leader Tom Cross (R-Oswego). “We’ve all said there’s a problem. We all acknowledge there’s the Constitution. But 720 days, we’ve done nothing, and it’s just going on and on and on. And now we’re talking about a summt. We’ve got to quit talking and have to pass something.”

After the committee vote Monday, Nekritz would not say when she intended to seek a vote by the full House, demonstrating the steep climb in lining up the necessary 60 votes to pass a bill.

“When we have the votes, we’ll call it,” she said.

One top Illinois business wasted no time lavishing praise on the progress made in the House Monday despite the uncertainty over whether the package will get out of the legislative chamber or, more significantly, can be reconciled with a Senate package being pushed by Senate President John Cullerton (D-Chicago).

“Caterpillar is pleased to see that the Illinois House is taking a step today on legislation that could be part of comprehensive pension reform that is critical for Illinois’ long-term fiscal health. We are encouraged by this activity and we hope that there can be bipartisan agreement on legislation that will fundamentally reform the system and make it sustainable for generations to come. We recognize this is a complex issue but believe that addressing it now will position Illinois to move toward fiscal stability,” Caterpillar Chairman and CEO Doug Oberhelman said in a prepared statement.

Contributing: Zach Buchheit

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