SPRINGFIELD — Gov. Pat Quinn closed the headline grabbing double-dipping loophole in Illinois’ pension system today, but critics say legal questions and pension costs also must be addressed.

By Benjamin Yount

SPRINGFIELD — Gov. Pat Quinn closed the headline grabbing double-dipping loophole in Illinois’ pension system today, but critics say legal questions and pension costs also must be addressed.

The governor signed into law House Bill 3813, which prevents some members of labor unions from cashing-in on publicly backed pensions. The new law takes effect immediately, but would nullify benefits retroactively for a handful of union leaders and lobbyists.

“The pension abuses unearthed were flagrant. They needed to be stopped immediately,” Quinn said in a statement.

He added that lawmakers must work to “tackle the remaining pension challenges,” but he did not explain what those are.

News reports this fall described Chicago union leaders using their years in union jobs, not to mention their higher union salaries, to boost their publicly backed municipal pensions.

Despite these accounts, lawmakers did not respond until two lobbyists with the Illinois Federation of Teachers, the state’s largest public teacher union, were found to have taught as substitutes for one day and parlayed that into fully backed pensions from the Teachers Retirement System.

“It’s common sense legislation,” said Collin Hitt, a senior policy analyst with Illinois Policy Institute, a conservative-leaning public policy watchdog group. “Private employees don’t deserve public pensions.”

But the Chicago union leaders and the lobbyists did nothing illegal. A 1991 law allows that private-to-public double-dipping.

House Republican leader Tom Cross, R-Oswego, said the union bosses used “a very broad interpretation” of that law.

Cross, who sponsored the legislation Quinn signed today, has said for months that pension reforms are needed.

Hitt said the solution is sweeping reforms that change how much the state pays for retirement for current workers.

But state Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie, D-Chicago, said the state House and Senate do not agree on whether the Illinois Constitution prohibits lawmakers from changing benefits for state workers enrolled in the state’s five retirement system.

“The issue that people are raising is the question that to what extent you can change the benefits for current employees,” Currie said.

Lawmakers in 2010 created a two-tiered pensions system, but that only applied to workers hired after Jan. 1, 2011.

The Illinois House’ lawyer, David Ellis, testified at a legislative hearing in December that because of the Illinois Constitution’s pension guarantees, the new law may not enforceable.

The teachers union has said the law is unconstitutional because it takes away benefits that their lobbyists had earned. The union supported another measure that would close the 1991 loophole for future union employees.

But state Sen. Kwame Raoul, D-Chicago, who helped sponsor HB3813, said there is a difference between changing benefits for public workers and taking away benefits from private employees who used a loophole to grab a public pension.

“The intentional act of working just one day to get access to a public benefit, there is no argument that that is in any way for the public good,” said Raoul.

Hitt said the state next should focus on reforming Illinois’ public universities. He referred to an Illinois Policy Institute study, released this week, that says Illinois will pay $2 billion for higher education pensions and $1.5 billion for college and university funding and student aid combined.

“Next year, the state is going to spend more on retirement costs for university and college employees than it’s going to spend on other support to those colleges and to the students of those colleges,” Hitt said.

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1 Comment

  1. Bravo but big deal

    The governor finally signed the bill and wants us to think he is proactive. It is a bunch of c**p. For three years, the Illinois pension problem has been in the news almost every week. Quinn, Madigan, and Cullerton keep talking about but do nothing. They need to nothing to keep getting elected because they need to keep the State Employee Union happy. Mean while, another billion taxpayer dollars comes out of our pockets. This is not only bad for our state, it is criminal.

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