SPRINGFIELD — Illinois taxpayers may still be on the hook for the retirement costs of a handful union leaders who are in line to collect publicly backed pensions.

By Benjamin Yount

SPRINGFIELD — Illinois taxpayers may still be on the hook for the retirement costs of a handful union leaders who are in line to collect publicly backed pensions.

The Illinois House’s Personnel and Pension Committee used a rare Sunday night meeting to set a path for legislation that could restore publicly guaranteed pensions to double-dipping union leaders statewide.

The legislation, House Bill 1673, sponsored by state Rep. Kevin McCarthy, D-Orland Park, would close the loophole that allowed leaders who work for unions to use their time in private-sector jobs to maximize taxpayer guaranteed pensions. But McCarthy’s plan would affect people who have not cashed in on that loophole. The handful of double-dippers still could collect a pension

Lawmakers, however, stopped short of advancing legislation to the House floor for a vote.

The case of Steve Preckwinkle, a lobbyist for the Illinois Federation of Teachers, or IFT, made headlines in which he used the one day he worked as a substitute teacher to open the door to a taxpayer guaranteed a public teachers pension based on his private union salary.

A loophole in a 1991 law allowed Preckwinkle and others to apply the time they worked for a union toward a public pension. Preckwinkle’s one day as a sub was all the time “in the classroom” he needed to qualify for the same pension for which other teachers work 20 years to earn.

Recently Preckwinkle left the IFT, the union that represents thousands of public school teachers statewide. He stands to collect more than $100,000 a year in pension payments from the Teachers Retirement System. The average teacher pension is Illinois is about $50,000.

Lawmakers tried to take away pensions from Preckwinkle and the other double dippers with legislation sent to Gov. Pat Quinn last week. That plan would have ended payments to double dippers immediately and made sure no one else could try the same tactic in the future.

Dave Comerford, a spokesman for the IFT, has said in the past that the legislation sent to the governor is unconstitutional because it impacts pension benefits for current employees or current retirees.

Comerford said the Illinois Constitution prohibits lawmakers from changing pensions benefits for current workers or retirees.

“If we only go forward with the one (piece of legislation) and that is found to be unconstitutional, then it’s as if we did nothing,” McCarthy said.

McCarthy said almost every lawmaker opposes what Preckwinkle and the other union leaders did. But he’s not sure that the Illinois Constitution allows the Legislature to change pension benefits once someone has paid into the system.

State Rep. Frank Mautino, D-Spring Valley, said the question about Preckwinkle and the other double dippers is not a question of right and wrong.

“Is it legal, that’s the question,” said Mautino. “If a court rules against (the pension reforms) then you have case law, a legal precedent, that public pensions cannot be altered.”

But Collin Hitt, senior policy analyst with the nonpartisan policy group the Illinois Policy Institute, said people at home know that union employees should not get a publicly guaranteed pension.

“Neither of the Illinois Federation of Teacher employees were public employees. The notion that their pensions are protected the same as public employees is absurd,” Hitt said.

Hitt said that if lawmakers “can’t get this right, it raises serious questions about the resolve of the Legislature to deal with the tough questions of pension reform.”

House Republican leader Tom Cross,R-Oswego, who sponsored the recently approved pension reforms, said Democrats have a history of using constitutional questions as a smokescreen.

“There has been a pattern over the years of calling things unconstitutional with the goal of taking a lesser approach,” Cross said.

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  1. What a Surprise!

    Of course they will protect their supporters and the unions.

    I'm sure the legislature thinks the public is stupid and does not realize what they are doing and will just forget the matter in a few weeks.  I hope they are wrong and voters write their state senators and representatives.  Enough wil this legislative bills for special interests and friends.

  2. Union leaders may still get taxpayer-funded pensions

    It's nice that State Rep. McCarthy wants to close the loophole… Why can't we go back, find out who the miscreants were who enabled this travesty, expose them and CANCEL the odious ones – by constitutional amendment if necessary! 

    Not part of any social contract that any sane citizen of this state was willing to suppport (back then or ever)!

    Respectfully submitted, Brian G. Becharas

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