Madigan will allow House pension vote on Aug. 17


Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan has decided to allow a limited pension-reform bill to be considered when the General Assembly returns for a special session Aug. 17.

House Bill 1447 changes pensions for only members of the State Employees Retirement System and the General Assembly Retirement System. The bill does not address the controversial issue of shifting the pension costs for downstate teachers away from the state and onto local school districts.

HB1447 narrowly passed the Senate during the closing hours of the spring session, but wasn’t called for a vote in the House before the chamber adjourned for the summer.

Madigan, a Chicago Democrat, previously said he was considering whether or not to take a vote on the bill, but hadn’t made a final determination.

“The speaker has determined he would call it,” Madigan spokesman Steve Brown said Monday.

Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago, has repeatedly called on the House to pass the bill, even though it does not deal with pensions for downstate teachers, university workers or judges. Cullerton said passing even a limited pension-reform measure will show credit-rating agencies that the state is capable of tackling the issue. Gov. Pat Quinn has said those agencies have threatened the state with a double downgrade of its credit rating unless Illinois reins in its pension costs.

60 or 71 votes?

Whether HB1447 can muster the votes needed to pass is another question.  As it passed the Senate, the bill takes effect immediately, which means the House would have to pass it with 71 votes instead of the usual 60.  Cullerton suggested that if the House can’t meet the 71-vote threshold, the reforms could be tacked on to a different bill with a later effective date and passed with 60 votes.  The Senate would then have to vote again on the bill.

Brown said the possibility of doing that is under discussion.

“The ideas in the bill are what we are talking about,” he said.

The bill requires SERS and GARS members to make a choice.  They can continue receiving annual 3 percent compounded increases in their retirement benefits as they do now.  However, they would have to give up access to state retiree health insurance and no longer have future salary increases apply to their retirement benefits.

Members in the system could otherwise choose to continue having access to retiree health insurance and having raises count toward their benefits.  In exchange, COLAs in their retirement benefits would be reduced to 3 percent or one-half the urban cost of living index, whichever is less.  Those COLAs would not compound.

GOP votes needed

House Minority Leader Tom Cross, R-Oswego, said he wants to see a “comprehensive solution that tackles the whole problem.”

“With two weeks to go before the special session convenes, Leader Cross believes there is time to look at more comprehensive solutions that would include increasing employee contributions, being more aggressive than current proposals on COLAs and looking at 401(k) options, to name a few,” said a statement issued by his office.

Republican votes have to be part of passing any pension-reform bill, Brown said.

“That bill (HB1447) passed the Senate with a bipartisan roll call,” he said.  “That’s pretty much a key feature of the pension law changes that have been made in the last several years.”

Adding to the mix, Rep. Elaine Nekritz of Northbrook, the House Democrats’ point person on pension reform last spring, has introduced two new pension proposals.  One affects all the pension plans except the one covering judges, while the other bill covers only downstate teachers and university workers.

Both bills make the same changes as those called for in HB1447.  However, both also call for shifting downstate teacher pension costs to local school districts, although the shift is more gradual than anything proposed so far.

Because they are newly introduced bills, they cannot be taken up during the one-day special session.

“The history of this pension debate is that when we have something concrete on the table to discuss, it actual does move the debate forward,” Nekritz said.  “We wanted to get something out there that everyone could look at and discuss.”

Doug Finke can be reached at 788-1527.