Lawmakers reach agreement on pension problem

By Ray Long and Rick Pearson

Top Illinois legislators said Wednesday they’ve reached agreement on a plan to deal with the state’s worst-in-the-nation unfunded public pension liability and expect to vote on it next week.

Details of the measure were unclear Wednesday and its prospects of passing remained uncertain. But both Democratic and Republican leaders said they agreed on a proposal, the first such sign of progress in more than two years of discussions spurred by a continued downgrading of the state’s credit rating.

The debate has centered on how to reduce costs while balancing the legal protections to public employee retiree benefits laid out in the state constitution. The public employee unions have repeatedly threatened to challenge in court any pension proposal that lacked their support, and they were quick to criticize Wednesday’s announcement.

Negotiations among the four legislative leaders had centered on plans to slow compounded annual cost-of-living adjustments for public employees–the biggest driver of the state’s $100 billion unfunded pension liability.

“We got it done,” said Senate Republican leader Christine Radogno, who said “the goal” is to vote on the measure next week.

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A top aide to Democratic Senate President John Cullerton concurred.

“There is a deal,” said Rikeesha Phelon, spokeswoman for Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago, in an email. “We are asking our members to return on Tuesday. We are going to spend the next week reviewing the plan with our caucus.”

The senators will join House lawmakers, who were told Tuesday to return Dec. 3 to Springfield for a one-day session. The Dec. 3 date is politically significant because it is the day after the filing deadline for the March 2014 primary election, and lawmakers will know what competition they have.

Radogno said the proposal would save about $160 billion and the goal is to fully fund the pension system over the next 30 years.

The proposal would raise retirement ages, create an optional 401(k)-styled plan and scale back the cost-of-living increases.

Increasing the retirement age, now set at various levels based on the type of work, would impact the youngest workers the most. Younger workers could see up to five years added to their retirement ages, Radogno said.

The cost-of-living adjustments would be altered “to be sure that the lower-paid, longest-serving employees have the biggest protection,” said Radogno. It would be largely patterned after a provision she pushed and was included in a bill that Speaker Michael Madigan passed in the House.

Currently, retirees get an automatic 3 percent compounded increase every year.

The plan that passed the House included a formula that gave weight to the number of years a person worked, a way to rein in the size of the annual pension increases of employees that worked only a few years but got huge salaries

Radogno said that proposal has been “tweaked” slightly but would not go into the details

Gov. Pat Quinn issued a statement saying the plan meets his “standard” to eliminate the unfunded pension debt and give the retirement systems financial stability.

“We have more work to do,” Quinn said. “I look forward to working with the leaders and members of the General Assembly over the coming days to get this job done for the people of Illinois.”

Officials for public employee and teachers’ unions, while unfamiliar with the details, said in a statement that they believed the proposal was “an unfair, unconstitutional scheme that undermines retirement security” since it was based on previous proposals that they had fought.

“It’s no compromise at all with those who earned and paid for their retirement benefits,” said the “We Are One” coalition, an umbrella organization for the state AFL-CIO, the Illinois Education Association, the Illinois Federation of Teachers, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the Service Employees International Union and the Illinois Nurses Association.