SPRINGFIELD – Illinois legislators adjourned their special session Friday without making any progress on the state’s massive pension crisis, not even passage of a largely symbolic measure to start the overhaul by cutting their own benefits.
When it became clear there would be no action on a broad plan to reduce pension costs, Democrats proposed a bill that would apply only to legislators and some of their staff. It was supposed to slow the growth in pensions for current legislators and end pensions entirely for all future legislators.
The proposal’s backers said it would start the process and demonstrate that legislators are willing to share the
financial pain. Republicans called it political cover for the Legislature’s failure to address the real problem.
State Rep. Robert Pritchard, R-Hinckley, said that the special session was more about posturing than policy, and pointed the finger at Democratic leaders in the House and Senate, who seem uninterested in working toward a compromise.
“It looks like all this was done for is political fodder to give them some cover in the upcoming election to make it look like they’re serious about pension reforms,” Pritchard said. “They’re not.
“They’re just reverting to the old practices of kind of dictatorial rule here in Springfield, and that never leads to good solutions.”
Pritchard, who voted no on the measure’s second reading, said legislators of both parties want to work toward a compromise to help stem the tide of unfunded obligations, as they did with Medicaid reform and other budget decisions this year. But the House and Senate leaders aren’t interested in that kind of solution.
“We have that model, we have that when the Speaker allows the member to do it, we can get those kind of solutions,” Pritchard said. “So I think we have to keep the blame, if you want to say there’s blame here, on the leadership.”
The idea got only 54 votes when it was added to an existing bill, far short of the 60 needed to send legislation to the Senate. So the sponsor didn’t bother holding a final vote.
State Sen. Dave Syverson, R-Rockford, said a number of Senate Democrats had left already by the time a House committee voted on party lines a proposal that would eliminate pensions for future lawmakers.
“I think the Senate figures it won’t matter what the House does because it won’t go into effect until a couple of years later,” Svyerson said, referring to the effective date of the proposal.
Between the various closed-door caucus and leader meetings that occurred throughout the day Friday, House lawmakers discussed a proposal that would eliminate pensions for future lawmakers.
But the General Assembly Retirement System is the smallest pension system. And by doing so, lawmakers are just guaranteeing that the inevitable solution to pension reform will be that much more painful, Syverson added.
House Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie, D-Chicago, said Senate Bill 3168 would save $45 million in the first year, and by 2045, the state would save $115 million. But those savings are miniscule when the state’s unfunded pension liability is estimated to be at $83 billion.
Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn called legislators into special session Friday to address pensions. But deep policy differences between Democrats and Republicans meant nothing could be achieved on an issue that both sides say is urgent. Cutting legislative benefits would keep lawmakers from going home completely empty-handed.
For years, the state has failed to contribute enough money to the retirement systems for state employees, university staff, elected officials and downstate and suburban Chicago teachers.
That, combined with a poor economy, has left the systems about $85 billion short.
Finding money each year to reduce that gap is eating up state government’s limited funds, leaving little for such things as education, human services and prisons.
State leaders want to reduce annual payments by cutting benefits. Future retirees would see their pensions grow more slowly, instead of the current 3 percent increase compounded annually. Employees who reject that offer would lose their state-subsidized health insurance and not get any future raises included when their pension checks are calculated.
But the two parties are split on what to do about teachers. Democrats want downstate and suburban Chicago school districts to start paying the employers’ share of pension costs for teachers, instead of having the state pay. Republicans object, predicting major property tax increases if that were to happen.
• David Thomas contributed to this report.