CHAMPAIGN – The Illinois Legislature is considering fixing a portion of a statewide pension overhaul that unwittingly takes a year of benefits away from university employees.
Higher education officials say a mistake in the legislation passed by lawmakers in December is causing hundreds of public-university employees to retire or consider retirement earlier than anticipated.
The pension-reform bill signed into law last year currently calculates a retiring university employee’s benefits as of last year instead of this year.
State Rep. Chad Hays, a Catlin Republican, filed one of two pieces of legislation this week that would change the language. Hay’s bill would base benefits on retirement as of June 30 instead of in 2013.
Hays’ district includes part of the University of Illinois’ Urbana-Champaign campus.
“My goal is to be sure that we do not cause a stampede toward the door because the legislative intent of the original bill is wrong,” Hays said. “My bill I believe is a very minor technical correction.”
A second piece of legislation was filed by state Sen. Chapin Rose on Thursday. The amendment to an existing Senate bill is co-sponsored by Christine Radogno, a Republican from Lemont.
“This is an opportunity to fix that [mistake] and fix it quickly,” said her spokeswoman, Patty Schuh, adding that the amendment might be able to be moved along more quickly than a new bill.
A minor correction is how university administrators who are seeking the change billed it when they first discussed it publicly last month, literally just a few words in the pension law.
But lawmakers including state Sen. Daniel Biss, who co-sponsored the pension-reform legislation, have expressed concern that making the change might not be so simple. The pension reform law was difficult to pass, leading to potential reluctance to re-open it, Biss has said.
On Friday he said he’s optimistic.
“We still need to go and get the process moving and get a bill through,” Biss said.
In a letter Thursday to the State Universities Retirement System, which is also pushing for the change, House Speaker Michael Madigan said he “supports efforts to correct the technical error.”
Spokesmen for the University of Illinois and Northern Illinois University said the schools have been working with lawmakers and hope to see the change made soon.
University of Illinois spokesman Tom Hardy pointed out that the General Assembly adjourns later this month, meaning that the change will have to happen soon since the pension law takes effect on June 1.
“With less than a month left in the legislative session and the academic year winding down, every public university and community college in Illinois needs it A.S.A.P.,” Hardy said in an email.
Illinois’ public-retirement systems had $100 billion in pension liabilities they couldn’t pay for when the General Assembly passed the pension reform measure in December. The law would save an estimated $145 billion, largely by cutting benefits for employees and retirees.
The law has since been challenged in court, including a motion filed Friday by a group representing public university employees and retirees asking that the pension law be set aside until its constitutionality is determined.
Even before the glitch in the language of the bill was revealed, universities were already worried about large-scale departures of employees who would lose benefits if they didn’t leave by June 30.
More than 1,500 public university employees have already filed paperwork to retire by June, up from about 600 during the same period last year, according to SURS.