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Illinois House plans hearing on pension-reform package Monday

Illinois Rep. Elaine Nekritz D-Des Plaines speaks reporters after House committee hearing Illinois State Capitol Sunday Jan. 6 2013 Springfield

Illinois Rep. Elaine Nekritz, D-Des Plaines, speaks to reporters after a House committee hearing at the Illinois State Capitol Sunday, Jan. 6, 2013 in Springfield Ill. Nekritz says since the Senate didn’t vote on assault weapons legislation, the House probably won’t either during the lame duck session.(AP Photo/Seth Perlman)

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Updated: February 8, 2013 6:25AM



SPRINGFIELD — Cost-of-living increases for state retirees and Downstate and suburban teachers would freeze for six years, and no one would be eligible for that perk until turning 67 under a pension-reform package expected to surface Monday in the Illinois House.

While the House was poised to advance its own solution to Illinois’ $95 billion pension crisis, no signs emerged Sunday to suggest the Democratic-led House or Senate were any closer toward reconciling major differences in their approaches to state government’s biggest financial conundrum.

House Democrats have scheduled a committee hearing at noon Monday on a pension plan they hope to position for a floor vote by the full House possibly later in the day as a Tuesday adjournment clock ticks down on the lame-duck legislative session.

The plan largely resembles the framework laid out in December by state Rep. Elaine Nekritz (D-Northbrook) and Rep. Daniel Biss (D-Evanston) and, for the moment, does not include provisions sought by Mayor Rahm Emanuel to reel in pension benefits for retired city workers. That issue, sources said, could still be tacked on to the bill Monday because the mayor’s forces in Springfield were continuing to push for that.

The Nekritz bill does not contain language that would pass $20 billion in costs that the state now shoulders for suburban and Downstate educators’ pensions onto the school systems that employ them, a key sticking point for Republicans.

Under the House legislation, known as Senate Bill 1673, cost-of-living increases would be based on only the first $25,000 of a retiree’s pension; pensions would be capped at the Social Security wage base or an employee’s current salary, whichever is higher; employee pension contributions would jump by 1 percent of their wages for two years, according to an analysis of the bill distributed Sunday by Nekritz’s staff.

The House plan, which would fully fund the pension systems in 30 years, would apply to four of the state’s five pension systems and, most significantly, would not give existing workers or retirees a choice of accepting reduced pension benefits. That latter point is a constitutional linchpin of pension legislation Senate President John Cullerton (D-Chicago) favors.

That Senate-passed plan, known as House Bill 1447, would apply only to employees and retirees with time in agencies the governor controls and to current and retired state lawmakers and their staffs. It also would make workers and retirees choose between getting either state-subsidized health insurance in retirement or the cost-of-living increases — but no longer both. That opt-out provision, Cullerton has said, would make a pension law constitutional.

Despite the differences in the Senate and House versions, House Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago) sounded an optimistic tone before leaving the state Capitol on Sunday when asked to assess the chances of passing a pension package to Gov. Pat Quinn.

“I think they’re pretty good,” Madigan said. “I think everyone is working together in good faith and trying to work our way through these issue differences. There are issue differences, but there’s a good-faith effort to get through them and produce a bill.”

Madigan also said he has not decided whether a vote will occur on the Cullerton-backed plan in the Senate, as Cullerton has insisted.

“Well, I don’t know about that, but I know that John has given a lot of time and effort and study to the pension question, and so he’s got some strong views on it, which he’s entitled to,” Madigan said. “I don’t think we should get hung up on details. I think we ought to be focused on getting something done.”

Pressed on what’s left to be done, Madigan said, “Well, to sit down and reconcile differences and do a little give and take and move a bill.”

A Cullerton spokeswoman late Sunday held to her boss’ earlier position that the House first take up the pension legislation that passed the Senate last May before anything else.

“He’s still insisting they take up HB1447. We need an opportunity to have an up-or-down vote,” Cullerton spokeswoman Rikeesha Phelon said.

“It’s already passed one chamber, and it has a constitutional framework we feel will hold up in court. We believe those considerations are very important on any bill that’s passed,” she said.

Phelon said the Senate is prepared to return to Springfield “a few hours earlier” than its scheduled 3 p.m. Tuesday session if the House sends over a pension bill, but she stopped short of offering any assurance her chamber would vote on a House plan.

House Republicans met into the early evening Sunday to digest details of the House plan, but House Minority Leader Tom Cross (R-Oswego) appeared flummoxed when asked to decipher the seeming power struggle unfolding over pensions between Cullerton and Madigan.

“That’s kind of above my pay grade, so to speak,” Cross told reporters.



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