By Ray Long and Rafael Guerrero, Chicago Tribune reporters
8:47 PM CDT, March 20, 2013
— State lawmakers continued to dance around the question of how to fix the state's heavily indebted government worker pension system Wednesday, with the latest two-step unfolding in the Illinois Senate.
A comprehensive measure aimed at erasing the $96.8 billion pension debt by asking employees to pay more, retire later and accept lower cost-of-living increases failed.
Later, Senate President John Cullerton barely salvaged a political face-saver when he passed a stripped-down pension proposal that would reduce benefits only for current downstate and suburban teachers.
The Democrats run the Senate with a 40-19 majority over the Republicans, but Cullerton found himself scrambling to advance even his scaled-back version of a pension overhaul. It took the North Side Democrat two roll calls sandwiched between a frantic parliamentary maneuver and a bit of arm-twisting to pass the bill. Even then, it squeaked through with the bare minimum of 30 votes.
With lawmakers preparing to head home for two weeks of spring break and just two months left until the May 31 adjournment, no one at the Capitol was crowing about Wednesday's action on the critical pension issue.
"Our work isn't done," Cullerton said in a statement.
The Senate president said he is committed to "passing a full reform plan this session" for more than just teachers, but his statement also nodded to the most vexing issue before the Senate: how to pass such a major deal.
"The work of building a coalition of 30 votes is going to require more heavy lifting," Cullerton said.
Left in the wreckage on the Senate floor was a separate bill that proposed changes to four retirement systems covering teachers, lawmakers, rank-and-file state workers and university employees. Sen. Dan Biss' bill called for workers to take a bigger bite out of their paychecks, scaled back the automatic 3 percent compounded annual increase for retirees and phased in a higher retirement age.
Biss, D-Evanston, and Cullerton took different approaches toward overhauling the retirement plans, and the divide broke down along partisan lines — as well as along Cullerton's power base.
Biss' broader pension measure picked up a dozen Republican votes, including that of Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno of Lemont. She called Biss' measure the most comprehensive approach and the "best path forward at this point in time."
But only 11 Democrats jumped in with Biss. The 23 votes fell seven short of passage.
The Senate Democratic rank and file sided with Cullerton over Biss. No Republicans backed the Cullerton plan, noting it only affected active teachers.
Sen. Kwame Raoul, D-Chicago, argued that Biss' plan is unconstitutional because it violates a basic tenet that no pension can be reduced — or in the official terms, "diminished or impaired."
Biss and allies have taken the position that a big overhaul is needed to save the pension system from potential ruin. Illinois already has taken the "extraordinarily difficult" steps of raising the income tax, slashing education and cutting health care for the poor — all because the annual tab for pensions is growing exponentially, Biss said.
The Biss plan would save an estimated $150 billion over 30 years. Cullerton's plan would save an estimated $18 billion to $40 billion.
Cullerton believes his plan passes constitutional muster. Current teachers could choose between keeping the compounded 3 percent annual pension increase and giving up health insurance or taking a smaller annual pension increase and keeping health insurance. If they kept the 3 percent hike, they couldn't count any more raises to boost pensions when they retire.
Cullerton, who voted for both approaches, said the Senate needed to pass the bill it did to show it is "serious." On Thursday, the House is expected to consider pension elements that resemble the Biss plan.
At the executive mansion, Gov. Pat Quinn acknowledged that "everybody has their own strategy." But he also said pension reform is "very, very important."
"And if we do it together, we'll be better off."
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