Kadner: Dems break ranks on pension reform
By Phil Kadner firstname.lastname@example.org December 4, 2013 8:00PM
Lawmakers work toward passing pension legislation while on the House floor during session at the Illinois State Capitol Tuesday, Dec. 3, 2013 in Springfield Ill. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman)
Updated: January 6, 2014 12:57PM
Some Southland legislators who normally could be counted on as “yes” votes by Democratic Party leaders broke ranks this week in voting against the pension reform bill.
“I believe what we did in this bill is simply unconstitutional,” said state Sen. Toi Hutchinson, D-Olympia Fields. “We’re diminishing a benefit of government workers and that violates the state constitution.”
Hutchinson, who’s attending law school, said she studied court decisions on the issue and re-read the Illinois Constitution several times, and “I don’t see how judges could possibly uphold the legislation. If they rule strictly on the law, they will have to rule it unconstitutional.
“And as a state legislator, who took an oath of office to uphold the constitution, I don’t see how I could do anything but vote ‘no’ on such a bill.”
State Reps. Al Riley, D-Olympia Fields, and Robert Rita, D-Blue Island, each said the bill overreached in attempting to fully fund the pension systems for state employees.
“The legislation guarantees that the pensions will be 100 percent funded in the future,” Riley said. “There’s simply no need to make that sort of commitment since pensions that are 70 percent or 80 percent funded are considered golden.
“And what that means is that money that could have been used to ease the burden on retirees, such as maintaining their cost-of-living increases, has to be used to meet that 100 percent commitment.
“Reducing that to even 90 percent would have created a lot of money for us to use in different ways. It would have given us greater flexibility and still solved the state’s pension problem, but there seemed to be no will to do that.”
Rita, who also voted “no” on the reform bill, expressed similar sentiments, believing that the 100 percent funding commitment resulted in unfair cuts to the pensions of current and future retirees.
“Planning for retirement is a big decision,” he said. “People spend years planning and saving for that day, and the bulk of the savings from this $160 billion pension reform comes from government employees. I think we could have reduced some of those cuts if we had gone for 90-percent-funded pensions instead of 100 percent.
“But I don’t want anything I say to be interpreted as criticism of those who worked on this bill. I know they worked long and hard to get this done. (State Rep.) Elaine Nekritz, D-Northbrook, sits right in front of me in the House, and I know how hard she worked on this bill.
“But in the end I had to vote ‘no’ because I had problems with it. They set a target of $160 billion in savings,” Rita said. “Why $160 billion? Did it have to be $160 billion? Could it have been $130 billion? That would have meant $30 billion more in benefits kept by people who had not only worked for the government but have already retired.”
State Reps. Anthony DeLuca, D-Chicago Heights, and Will Davis, D-Hazel Crest, also voted against the legislation. Davis told me as he headed into the House session for the vote Tuesday that “I have no idea how I’m going to vote at this time.”
Davis said that while some people have the impression that state employees get six-figure retirements, “I know a lot of school teachers in my district are getting $42,000 a year, and that isn’t making anyone wealthy. They’re budgeting by counting on that money.”
All of the legislators said their offices received a massive number of phone calls from members of government unions and also from those who wanted a much tougher pension reform bill.
As I called the offices of local lawmakers on Tuesday, as debate on pension reform was taking place on the House floor, staff members answering the phones frequently assumed that I was calling to urge a “no” vote.
But the legislators I spoke with on Wednesday denied that they were influenced by such calls, while emphasizing that they sympathized with the concerns of government employees who feared losing some of their retirement benefits.
State Rep. Kelly Burke, D-Evergreen Park, who voted “yes,” said she would be in her office Thursday and Friday to personally answer questions from constituents about pension reform.
“I am willing to sit down and go through the retirement formula with any government employee who walks into the office,” Burke said, “no appointment necessary.”
Burke, while admitting that the bill “was not perfect,” said it was needed both to assure the state’s financial stability and guarantee the viability of the pension systems in the future. But she said the bill is complicated, “so if people want it explained, would like to understand how it is going to effect their retirement, I consider it my obligation to do that.”
State Sen. William Cunningham, D-Chicago, whose district runs from Chicago’s Beverly community to Orland Park, voted for the bill but expressed strong sympathies with government employees.
“I want to make it clear that I understand these people did nothing wrong,” Cunningham said. “They did everything right. They made their payments into the pension system, but the state did not, or made partial payments, for generations.
“With that said, I also know the unions in the past agreed to pension holidays passed by the General Assembly. In 2005, the teachers union supported a pension holiday so more money could be spent on education, avoiding teacher layoffs.
“But doing nothing was not a viable option. It potentially results in the pension system going bankrupt. Our goal was to come up with legislation that is equitable. I almost said ‘fair,’ but fair is not a word I want to use in describing this.”
Cunningham and state Rep. Fran Hurley, D-Chicago, who also voted “yes” on pension reform, said they were fielding questions from concerned city and county employees who mistakenly believed that the state pension bill impacted their retirement.
“This has nothing to do with city police and firefighters or county employees,” Cunningham said. “This legislation only impacts the state pension systems.”
As for this being a special kind of crisis, Hutchinson said, “I’ve been down here five years, and it seems like every year there’s a new crisis we’re facing. That’s just the condition the state is in right now.”