SPRINGFIELD — Public employee unions in Illinois seem willing to play chicken with what may be Democrats’ final offer on pension reform.

By Benjamin Yount

SPRINGFIELD — Public employee unions in Illinois seem willing to play chicken with what may be Democrats’ final offer on pension reform.

Powerful House Speaker Mike Madigan D-Chicago, on Wednesday detailed a plan he calls a comprehensive fix for Illinois’ worst-in-the-nation pension system.

“The concepts in the package are not new,” Madigan told lawmakers who support the idea, and public employee unions who do not. “The House has already approved several of the items in the (plan).”

Madigan’s proposal would limit cost-of-living increases for public workers, except judges, cap the amount of salary on which a worker can base their pension and guarantee Illinois will pay its share of the multi-billion dollar pension payment every year.

“If the state fails to make a required payment … the (pension) systems will have the right to …compel the state to make the payment,” Madigan added.

Illinois’ pension payment next year will hit nearly $8 billion. The state’s five pension systems have a total deficit of nearly $130 billion.

The Illinois Constitution protects public employee pensions but never required the state to pay into the systems.

Public employee unions say the state’s failure to pay, over the past few decades, is to blame for the pension crisis.

“This (plan), in part, does address the crux of the pension problem,” Henry Bayer, director of Illinois’ largest public employee union, said Wednesday. “It does guarantee that if the state doesn’t make its payment to the pension funds, the pension funds have the right to sue the state.”

Bayer said members of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees do not think pension benefits should be reduced.

AFSCME represents some 50,000 workers in state government and at Illinois’ state universities. Most of the public workers waiting for a pension are teachers.

Illinois Federation of Teachers’ President Dan Montgomery insists pension reform should not mean benefit cuts, but rather tax increases.

“Providing a fiscally responsible stream towards funding and other solutions can get us (reform),” Montgomery told lawmakers at Wednesday’s House hearing.

Madigan’s plan would guarantee pension checks but does not address who will pay for those pension costs. The speaker cryptically noted that a cost shift, which would have local schools pay for their teachers’ retirement costs, will be “dealt with” later.

The IFT, AFSCME and a handful of other unions who make up the We Are One Illinois Coalition have vowed to fight Madigan’s reforms and plan a legal challenge if they pass.

Republican state Rep. Dave McSweeney, R-Barrington Hills, pleaded with the public employee unions to agree to pension reform now.

“We are here today to save your pensions,” McSweeney told the union chiefs.

Democratic state Rep. Elaine Nekritz, D-Northbrook, said it may already be too late.

“We have a really, really significant problem facing this state,” Nekritz said. “We have asked the taxpayers to step up and pay more. This is one more aspect (of state government) we’re having to look at.”

Madigan has said his pension reform plan could come up for a House vote as soon as Thursday.

Contact reporter Benjamin Yount at Ben@IllinoisWatchdog.org.

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