Illinois General Assembly passes pension reform

By Eleanor Black

After decades of attempting to fix the state’s pension system, which faces an estimated deficit of more than $100 billion, the Illinois General Assembly passed the comprehensive pension reform bill Tuesday by a vote of 62-53 in the House and 30-24 in the Senate.

The measure aims to eliminate the worst state credit rating in the country by reducing cost-of-living adjustments and increasing the retirement age, among other changes.

Using 10 percent of the money saved from these cost-cutting measures, as well as annual payments from Fiscal Year 2020 to 2045, the state will fully fund the pension system by Fiscal Year 2044, according to the bill.

University President Robert Easter, along with the chancellors of all three campuses, signed an email announcing the University’s opposition to the bill Monday.

University spokesman Tom Hardy said the University and other Illinois public universities submitted official slips of opposition during Tuesday’s hearings.

“It will go to Governor (Pat) Quinn, and he has said he’s going to sign it,” Hardy said. “The legislation is virtually certain to undergo a constitutional challenge, and it will be determined by the courts whether or not it … will become the law of the land.”

Quinn released a statement Tuesday supporting the bill.

“This bill will ensure retirement security for those who have faithfully contributed to the pension systems, end the squeeze on critical education and health care services, and support economic growth,” Quinn said in the press release.

In the meantime, the University will continue to look into how the legislation will affect the school and its employees. Hardy added that the University will be investigating whether it will be able to provide a supplemental retirement program to employees.

“We have to remember that the employees of the University are our greatest resource and asset,” he said. “We need to be able to keep our top talent.”

The bill will place a cap of $109,971 on the amount of salary on which a pension benefit is based for all faculty; the University already has this cap in place for new hires, but under this bill, it will apply to all employees. There are 2,984 faculty with salaries currently above the cap.

Long-standing, prestigious faculty who have made significant contributions to the University whose salaries are above the cap will not be given a fair pension in return, said Professor Harriet Murav, president of the Campus Faculty Association.

She added that because the cap is significantly below what top-earning faculty make, it will become increasingly difficult to attract and recruit new top faculty.

Hardy agreed with Murav’s statement and said that because the bill will reduce employees’ retirement benefits, the University is at a “competitive disadvantage” against its peers.

“We’re an economic engine for the state, and if we begin to dissipate that by not being able to attract and keep the top talent, the University will be diminished and so will the state,” Hardy said.

Professor of finance Jeffrey Brown authored a counter-proposal to the pension bill when it was still being discussed in March. He and four other professors, all from state universities, warned legislators that the legislation would burden government employees.

“One way or another, this is going to put financial strain on the University, and it is going to put us at risk at losing what is really our single most important asset, which is our faculty,” he said. “There aren’t any risks that are more significant to the University than that one.”

Hannah Prokop contributed to this report.

Eleanor can be reached at [email protected]

Editor’s Note: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the bill will place a salary cap of $109,971 on all faculty. The maximum amount of salary on which a pension benefit is based is $109,971, according to General Assembly-passed bill. The Daily Illini regrets the error.