Illinois Statehouse News

Illinois senate vote set on pension borrowing plan

Friday, October 29, 2010

SPRINGFIELD -- Hours after learning their own political futures, Illinois state senators may vote on the futures of thousands of retired state employees.

Two days after the general election, the Illinois State Senate returns to Springfield to consider a contentious pension borrowing plan of up to $4.1 billion. The plan would allow state government to sell up to $4.1 billion in bonds that must be paid off, with interest, in eight years.

State government could opt to borrow less money as a result of a pension reform proposal Gov. Pat Quinn signed earlier this year.

The borrowed money would allow state government to make its annual contribution to the state's five public employee pension systems. In years past, the state has struggled to provide its scheduled yearly payment.

The borrowed money would act as "hard debt" that state government would owe to lenders with interest. Opponents to borrowing, such as state Sen. Dave Syverson, R-Rockford, say borrowing is essentially "passing the buck" and forcing future state government to come up with the money, plus interest, from borrowing.

One alternative includes reducing state expenses to the point where enough money would be freed to make the pension payment. But that could mean cuts to other state government programs, such as education and healthcare.

Another alternative includes deferring payments. But under that scenario, the pension systems would have to sell assets that earn interest, which would further lower the value of already underfunded pension systems.

The Pew Center for the States recently reported that, as of 2008, Illinois is one of the worst states at contributing to its pension systems.

State Sen. Mike Jacobs, D-East Moline, said a vote on the borrowing plan may come down to what the results are for the general election on Tuesday. Jacobs said some senators who end up losing their races can make votes that would not be popular with constituents.

"One of the benefits of having people lose after an election is that they can make votes they couldn't make before because they're afraid of the wrath of the voters. So maybe there would be a few lame-ducks who would may be for this that didn't think they could," he said.

But state Sen. Dave Syverson, R-Rockford, said lame-duck votes should not be how state government approaches important issues.

"That's not what leadership is. That's being cowardly and that's not being a representative-type of a government," he said.

The Illinois House passed the proposal in May by just one vote, almost completely along party lines. Retiring state Reps. Bill Black, R-Danville, and Bob Biggins, R-Elmhurst, broke rank and voted in the affirmative.

After the House vote, Senate President John Cullerton indicated his chamber did not have the votes to pass the proposal, despite the extraordinary majority Democrats currently has in the Illinois Senate. In a July news conference, Gov. Pat Quinn said Cullerton would likely introduce the pension borrowing proposal on Nov. 4.

"The members of the Senate, they have a duty to look at a bill that passed the House dealing with borrowing. We've been told by the Senate President that that will be addressed and we expect him to do it. And when he does it, calls the bill, then (the Senate) will have a vote and I'm sure it will pass," Quinn said at the time.

Cullerton is counting on bipartisan support to pass the proposal much like last year, when the chamber passed a similar borrowing plan, according to a spokesman for the Senate President.

If the Illinois Senate approved of the plan by at least a three-fifths majority, the plan would go to Quinn for consideration.

The pension borrowing plan under consideration is Senate Bill 3514, and the Illinois Senate is scheduled to convene at 1 p.m. Nov. 4.