SPRINGFIELD — New judges and lawmakers in Illinois may see smaller pension benefits after they retire.

By Melissa Leu

SPRINGFIELD — New judges and lawmakers in Illinois may see smaller pension benefits after they retire.

The Illinois House last week overwhelmingly passed House Bill 1447 that reduces the pension benefits state legislators and judges hired after Jan 1, 2011 can collect. The reductions are on par with existing pension benefits for teachers and state employees.

“It would make sense and would put everybody on the same playing field ­­— result in some more parity if everyone had that same cost of living increase,” Sponsor Rep. Kelly Burke, D-Oak Lawn, said.

To keep up with the cost of living, pension benefits for lawmakers and judges increase every year at a rate of 3 percent, or based on the consumer price index, whichever is lesser.

Teacher and state worker pensions, however, increase by 3 percent, or half of the consumer price index, also whichever is lesser.

Rep. Roger Eddy, R-Hutsonville, voted for the plan, but said he didn’t believe it would save a “substantial” amount of money compared to simply paying off unfunded liabilities.

“I think this is a statement bill, and the statement is that the General Assembly and judges shouldn’t have a benefit that appears to be a better benefit than other state workers,” Eddy said.

Burke agreed. “It’s not glamorous. It’s not going to save the pension systems, but it is something that will make it more fiscally sustainable in the long run,” Burke said.

Rep. Mike Bost, R-Carbondale, who favored the measure, said he worried more about a conflict of interest for judges who might have to rule on the measure’s constitutionality, calling it a “fox guarding a chicken coup” situation.

“We passed legislation to try and cure many of these problems, and or stop raises, and or stop other things and the judges throw it out or they throw their portion of the bill out,” Bost said.

“If it does pass… when the judges throw it out, then the bill isn’t real,” Bost added.

Burke, however, said he doesn’t anticipate a constitutional challenge, calling the plan a simple “clean up” of last year’s pension reforms.

The previous General Assembly passed reforms that created a second “tier” of employees — those hired after Jan. 1. Those reforms increased retirement age to 67, placed a $106,800-cap on the amount the second tier was able to cash in on, and other restrictions.

Lawmakers and judges were able to keep the full consumer price index primarily because they also absorbed a 25 percent reduction in total annuity that teachers and state employees didn’t have to take, said Rep. Kevin McCarthy, D-Orland Park, who was part of the reform process last year.

“There is a perfectly good explanation for it. I think… it’s just one of those explanations people don’t listen to,” McCarthy said. “They just think, ‘Why did you take those two groups and give them more?'”

If the measure passes, lawmakers said the changes would effectively create a third tier.

Eddy questioned the utility of going that route.

“Are we really going to ever see all of these combined, so if we’re going to have a third tier, at least we don’t have a tier four, five, six and seven all in one year,” Eddy said.

The measure passed 87-3 and now heads to the Senate for debate, where some lawmakers predict it will be rolled into a larger pension reform package.

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