Illinois governor: Fix pensions 'once and for all'

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn pledged Tuesday to reform the public employee pension system "once and for all" this spring.

The Democratic governor said he's willing to take on the ailing program in a year when every seat in the Legislature is up for election because the state's contribution to five retirement plans is eating up more and more of the state budget.

The system is short about $85 billion what it will eventually need to cover all its liabilities. But repair could mean reducing benefits for state employees, something that's highly unpopular with powerful unions who contribute money to political campaigns.

"This is a major mountain to climb this year and I'm willing to lead the expedition," Quinn told reporters in Chicago. "That's exactly what we're going to do. We're going to get this done once and for all."

Quinn wrote to legislative leaders on Monday, asking them to make appointments to a panel he's setting up to recommend a legislative fix. Most leaders have already tabbed their point people to work with Quinn's staff and agree with him that, election or no, pensions should be a focus when lawmakers return later this month to Springfield.

"It should have happened a long time ago," said House Republican Leader Tom Cross, of Oswego. "I hope it's real, I hope it's not something for delay purposes, but real and substantive and not nibbling around the edges and saying, this is pension reform."

State pension contributions have suffered from a weak economy and years of underfunding by lawmakers who sometimes skipped payments to use money elsewhere. Quinn released a report last week showing that what the state owes to pensions will by 2015 grow to $5.9 billion, or nearly 18 percent of all revenue available.

"It's been a priority and will continue to be a priority," said Steve Brown, spokesman for House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago. "There have been pretty significant changes and there are other ones pending that don't have broad bipartisan support."

A reform law took effect a year ago that raised the retirement age for new employees and capped their overall pensions, despite protests from unions that pensions are not overly generous and that employees have faithfully contributed their portions while the state sometimes reneges.

Cross took a bill to the House floor last spring that would give public employees a choice -- keep their current pensions and pay more, or accept reduced benefits or a defined-contribution program. Despite support from Madigan, it has not gotten a floor vote.

Democratic Senate President John Cullerton believes the measure is unconstitutional and benefits for current employees can only be changed through contract bargaining. Spokeswoman Rikeesha Phelon said the Chicago Democrat plans to name a representative to the Quinn panel shortly and is willing to talk about how a proposal similar to the Cross plan "could create great cost controls by working with unions, not against them."

Minority Leader Christine Radogno, R-Lemont, supports Cross's idea, spokeswoman Patty Schuh said. She said Quinn's call for a study committee shows a "renewed effort at collaboration."

"Illinois cannot continue to stick its head in the sand and not address it," Schuh said. "We need pension reform that is fair and affordable and is constitutional in the end."