Slimmed-down Cullerton pension bill passes Senate on second try

SHARE Slimmed-down Cullerton pension bill passes Senate on second try

Illinois State Senate President John Cullerton. | Jessica Koscielniak~Sun-Times

SPRINGFIELD-A scaled-back plan by Senate President John Cullerton to make suburban and downstate teachers choose between keeping a compounding, 3-percent pension boost or giving up state-subsidized health insurance as retirees eked out of the Senate Wednesday.

The proposal applies only to members of the Teachers’ Retirement System and passed the Senate on a 30-22 roll call, marking the first pension-reform measure to pass the Senate this spring. Cullerton’s bill now moves to the House.

“It’s not often you can push a green button and save $18 to $40 billion over the next 30 years,” Cullerton said, referring to the green voting switch senators use to cast “aye” votes. “We need to start with pension reform. We need to pass a bill over to the House, put them on notice we’re serious.”

Cullerton’s approach involved scaling back an earlier version of Senate Bill 1 that he pushed. Originally, his plan represented a hybrid of House and Senate pension-reform packages.

The plan Cullerton (D-Chicago) settled on affected only one of the state’s five retirement systems, but aides said other retirement systems would be brought up for individual pension votes.

The plan that emerged Wednesday represented what Cullerton regarded as the best chance to put a constitutional pension bill on Gov. Pat Quinn’s desk because it would make teachers voluntarily give up a pension perk in the annual cost-of-living adjustment rather than taking it away.

“This measure, I have advanced because I believe it’s constitutional. It has the strongest argument to being constitutional, and if we were to pass a bill that was uncosntitutioanl, it would be a year before we’d find that out, and we’d have lost a year of savings,” Cullerton said. “That’s what I’m trying to avoid by advancing a bill that I think is fair.”

His legislation benefited Tuesday when a Sangamon County judge ruled that state-subsidized health care for government retirees is not a protected benefit, meaning the state could yank the perk without inviting a constitutional challenge.

The legislation took two tries to pass the Senate Wednesday. On the first time, it failed by a 29-22 vote, with four members voting “present.” In keeping it alive through a parliamentary maneuver, Cullerton got Sen. Dave Koehler (D-Peoria) to switch his “present” vote to a “yes” vote, enabling it to meet the 30-vote threshold needed for Senate passage.

Here’s what the successful roll call looked like.

Republicans opposed the plan, saying it doesn’t include state workers, university employees or lawmakers and barely makes a dent in the state’s $96 billion pension crisis.

“I’m not sure what a piecemeal approach will do for our efforts in the long run,” said Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno (R-Lemont). “We have to have a comprehensive solution.”

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