Tensions mount in Illinois House over pensions

May 30, 2012

The Illinois House is divided over a measure that would bring major changes to the state's pension system. The plan was approved by a committee on Tuesday. But it ignited a tense debate on the House floor. 

The measure would give workers a choice to accept smaller cost-of-living increases in retirement. It would also gradually make schools and universities pay the cost of retirement benefits for their employees. Opponents argue schools would be stuck with a huge expense at a time when money is already tight. But Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan says it's about making things fair.
"There's a concept in America that we all strive to live under, which is called responsibility. Responsibility for our actions. And when one person can spend money and send the bill to somebody else, that's not responsible, that's not responsibility. That's un-American."

House Republican leader Tom Cross took issue with Speaker Madigan's lecture on responsibility.

"Maybe you need to take responsibility, Mr. Speaker, for your actions. Because, think about this, Mr. Speaker, for the last 40 years, you have had your fingerprints on the mess we have today."

Republican Representative Dave Winters of Shirland sits on the committee that advanced the Democratic proposal.  Because it would be phased-in, he says the cost-shift should be manageable for local school districts.

"It's not perfect. I would have like to have seen higher contributions by employees and a raise in retirement age. But there were some constitutional questions on whether that would pass with the Illinois Supreme Court."

Meanwhile, the provision to adjust cost-of-living increases could be a big difference maker for states looking to reduce pension obligations.  That's according to Ron Snell, who's with the National Conference of State Legislatures.  He tells WNIJ the idea appears to be getting a close look.

"Those are very expensive. And that's why many states have reduced them."

Even though COLA adjustments have survived court challenges in other states, Snell says it's still  hard to predict the outcome of a pension overhaul, because constitutions for each state can vary.