By Jamey Dunn
Votes to gauge lawmakers’ sentiments on several pension proposals today produced little information, as Republicans refused to take part in a process that they called a political game.
Northbrook Democratic Rep. Elaine Nekritz, who has sponsored several pension reform proposals recently, presented four amendments put forward by House Speaker Michael Madigan, and the House resoundingly rejected them all. The amendment that received the most support, five “yes” votes, would prohibit cost of living adjustments [COLAs] for retirees if the pensions systems were less than 80 percent funded. The systems are currently funded at 39 percent. The least popular amendment, which would have moved the retirement age to 67, received only one favorable vote, and that came from Madigan, himself. The other two amendments would have eliminated COLAs entirely and would have required employees to contribute an additional 5 percent of their salaries toward pension costs.
There was little debate on any of the amendments. However, House Minority Leader Tom Cross rose to give a lengthy speech explaining why Republicans refused to engage or vote on the amendments. “Today, we’re going to go through the charade of acting like we are going to do something about it, and it’s nothing but a joke,” he said on the House floor. “It’s like this is the dysfunctional family with the alcoholic, and we think if we ignore it, it will go away, while he or she wrecks the car, destroys the family finances, causes problems at home. And we think, well it will just go away. We’re not even addressing the problem today. And somewhere, someday, somehow, we’ve got to accept the fact that we have a challenge on our hands. And we have to do [something about] it in a comprehensive way.”
Cross praised Nekritz for her separate efforts to craft a comprehensive bill. “She’s a leader. She stood up, taking on and fighting folks that have been natural allies of hers, and she’s to be commended for what she’s done and what she’s doing and what she wants to do.” Cross and Nekritz sponsor House Bill 3411, which they unveiled yesterday. Cross said the measure, which has bipartisan support in both chambers, should be a starting point for negotiating a bill that can pass. “We need to sit down — the four [legislative] leaders with the governor — quit the B.S. and get a bill with 60 votes, 30 in the Senate and 60 here, and send it to the governor’s desk.”
Nekritz said she preferred her and Cross’ proposal to the amendments offered by Madigan, which were generally harsher on state employees and retirees. But she said that today’s votes did illustrate the levels to which lawmakers are not willing to go when it comes to reducing COLAs, hiking employee contributions and increasing the retirement age. “We don’t have 60 votes on [HB3411] yet. And we have to engage in a process that will get us there. And maybe this isn’t exactly what we would all want, but we needed to shake things up. We needed to do something a little different than we’ve been doing because, as Leader Cross said, we’ve been working for three years to get to a point where we have a bill that can get 60 votes here,” Nekritz said on the House floor. “We all need to find something we’re for, and if this is a process that can get us to something that we’re for, then let’s go ahead with it. If it’s some other process, I’m open to that, too. But we have to get to something that we’re for, and each of you has to engage in that process of getting to yes.”
Marengo Democratic Rep. Jack Franks called on the party leaders to convene a "committee of the whole," which consists of all members of the House, and put all other issues aside until the chamber approves a bill with changes to the pension system. “I would ask that instead of being a pawn in the process, that instead, we take back the process. And I know this is unprecedented, but we’ve never faced this type of problem before.”
Cross said he would agree to such a move, but the idea did not go over well with Madigan. “The last thing I think the House of Representatives needs is another hearing. How many hearings have we had? How many bills have we offered? How many times have people withdrawn bills and ducked and bobbed and weaved? So a committee of the whole is really the craziest idea,” said Madigan spokesman Steve Brown.
Despite the unenthusiastic response to today’s exercise, which was similar to the treatment that concealed carry amendments got on Tuesday, Brown said lawmakers should expect the process, dubbed Weekly Order of Business, to continue. He said that there will likely be more of them on both pensions and “gun safety issues.” Under such orders, lawmakers are asked to take roll call votes to adopt various amendments, which each contain a single provision. However, no final action is called on the bill after amendments are adopted or rejected. “The strategy is to test the gambit of ideas. ... Test every idea that’s out there. You’ve heard people complain over the years about not being able to vote. Well, here’s a chance to vote.”
He also said the language in Cross and Nekritz’s bill could be moved straight to the floor, skipping over a committee hearing. “I think there’s some interest in maybe just discharging that bill and sending it to the floor and see who wants to vote on it,” Brown said. “Don’t rule anything out.”