| SPRINGFIELD, Ill
SPRINGFIELD, Ill Jan 6 Illinois lawmakers
unveiled a plan Sunday they believe can fix the state's huge
pension crisis, but labor unions blasted the proposal and vowed
to sue to protect their benefits.
State representatives Elaine Nekritz and Daniel Biss, both
Democrats, said the proposed amendment resulted from weekend
pension reform talks between legislative leaders and reflects a
bill they co-sponsored last month. House Republican Leader Tom
Cross supports the plan and is urging fellow Republicans to join
House Speaker Michael Madigan, a Chicago Democrat, said he
thought it possible to reach a deal in time for a vote this
week. Nekritz sounded more cautious.
"We think the bill will get out of committee, and then we'll
see," Nekritz said. "This has been so fragile at every step
along the way that if we can get it to committee, great, and if
we can get it off the floor, great, but we're still working our
way through it."
But the labor union coalition We Are One slammed the
proposal Sunday, claiming union representatives had been shut
out of negotiations and that politicians were using
unconstitutional schemes to ruin retirement security for
hundreds of thousands of Illinois workers.
If the General Assembly tries to pass the plan before the
lame-duck session ends Tuesday night, the coalition said it will
go to court. They are confident they will prevail given strong
protections for pension benefits in the Illinois Constitution.
Illinois' finances are buckling under the weight of a huge
$96 billion unfunded pension liability that is rapidly siphoning
off money needed for state services such as healthcare and
We Are One wants to meet with legislators in mid-January to
craft a pension reform plan that offers workers ironclad
guarantees, closes corporate tax loopholes and requires employee
payments into the system. The coalition said in a statement that
its plan "remains the only fair, constitutional and sustainable
proposal on the table."
Nekritz said legislators met with coalition representatives
in December and feels the two groups are at an impasse.
Quinn has been pushing the Democratic-controlled Legislature
to pass pension reforms before the new legislative session
In an apparent attempt to focus on pension reform, Nekritz
recessed a House panel Sunday that had been scheduled to discuss
an automatic weapons ban.
State Senate Leader John Cullerton, a Democrat, has also
questioned the pension proposal's constitutionality, and has
pushed a bill he sponsored that addresses two of the five
pension systems in Illinois - those that cover state workers and
legislators. The bill does not address the Teachers' Retirement
System, which is the state's largest.
Cullerton said the Senate might come back before the end of
the lame-duck session.
Biss said he thinks if passed, the new proposed amendment
would withstand a court challenge given the enormity of
Illinois' pension problem.
"I think the threshold question for constitutionality is
'What is the size of the problem, and are we solving it?' I
think it's important that the General Assembly speak with one
voice about how big a solution is needed or else we'll muddy the
question with the courts," he said.
Biss said that the coalition would have viewed the proposal
the unions advanced last month as unconstitutional five years
ago, too, but the state's current fiscal pressures make that
The lack of a pension fix has led to downgrades of Illinois'
credit ratings, with Moody's Investors Service warning last
month it could drop Illinois below the current A2 rating, the
lowest among the states it rates.
A potential breakthrough on a pension fix surfaced on Friday
when Quinn announced that Madigan had agreed to defer until a
later date a measure to gradually shift state payments for
teacher pensions onto local school districts. Republican
lawmakers were concerned the move would lead to local property
Madigan on Saturday said that will lead to a partial pension
fix, leaving lawmakers to deal mainly with benefit levels.
The new proposal - an amendment to a senate pension bill -
includes boosting worker contributions, raising retirement ages
and limiting cost-of-living adjustments for retirees. It also
caps pensionable salaries, creates a 30-year payment plan to
reach 100 percent funding and provides a guarantee that if the
state does not make its payment, the pension systems can sue.
Nekritz acknowledged that the fight to pass the amendment
will be tough.
"We've got to get 60 votes," she said. "That's what we're