Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Chicago pension changes pass in both chambers

By Jamey Dunn

The General Assembly today approved legislation to address the funding shortfall in pensions systems for Chicago city workers.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s proposal to stabilize the two systems fell flat last week, but sailed through the House and Senate today. The key factor that helped spur action was the removal of a provision that would have authorized city council members to approve a property tax increase. The new version of Senate Bill 1922, which is sponsored by House Speaker Michael Madigan, allows the city to pay for the plan with property tax money or any other available revenue.

Gov. Pat Quinn is running for re-election on a budget plan that would extend the current income tax rates instead of allowing them to sunset. The potential upside to his plan for some Illinoisans is that is would also offer a $500 annual credit for homeowners that Quinn has billed as property tax relief. Quinn made negative comments about the highly unpopular tax at most public appearances lately. Needless to say the governor opposed Emanuel’s push for a property tax increase blessed by state lawmakers. He panned it yesterday by calling it a “lousy tax” and saying that the proposal was “a sketch” not a clear plan.

But Emanuel described the proposal to reporters in Chicago as: “an honest compromise between leaders of organized labor and the city to secure the pensions; secure it in a way that city can afford it and make sure that to the 61,000 people who have come to relay on it, that it will be there.” Under the measure, workers would be asked to contribute more toward their retirement and would see reductions to their cost of living increases. Retirees would not get increases in 2017, 2019 and 2025. However, retirees with pension payouts of less than $22,000 annually would receive a minimum of 1 percent increase each year and would still get an increase during the skipped years. “If you do nothing, these plans are loosing money everyday. They’re going to go belly up within a decade,” Emanuel says.

As the legislation made its way through the process today, Quinn was unwilling to say whether he supported the bill. “I have to see the final bill. I’ll take a look at it. That’s what I do with all bills.” He did tell reporters that he was encouraged by the removal of the property tax components. “I think they got the message yesterday that [the] provision in the bill was not the way to go, and I’m glad they recognized that.” However, Quinn conceded that the city would have to find money somehow to cover the cost associated with the plan. “If they have any kind of pension reform, they need to have revenue to pay for it, but there’s many different creative ways to do that.”

Republicans in the House backed the plan, saying that it has to be done. “If we do nothing—we already have the roadmap for that. It’s called the city of Detroit,” said Elmhurst Republican Dennis Reboletti. “We can’t let the city of Chicago fail. And if the aldermen there chose to do nothing or choose to raise taxes, that’s their business.” The systems are governed by state law, so the General Assembly must sign off on changes. However, the revenue component of the plan can be handled at the local level. House Minority Leader Jim Durkin echoed that sentiment. “Doing nothing is not an option,” he said during floor debate. “We can’t ignore the fact that the city of Chicago is the economic engine of this state.” 

Senate Republicans did not see the issue the same way. They called on the Democrats in their chamber to put the breaks on the legislation, which they say moved too quickly. “It will be here in two weeks, and we’re happy to partner with you, but it must be a true partnership,” said Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno. Senate Republicans say they want to know what the plan is to deal with the city’s other underfunded pensions systems for teachers, firefighters and police officers. “What’s the plan? The place is on fire up there,” Palatine Republican Sen. Matt Murphy said. Murphy said that members of his party are worried that they city might look to the state’s coffers to bail out those systems.

Chicago Democratic Sen. Kwame Raoul, who sponsored the bill in the Senate, said that it is unrealistic to wait around for an omnibus bill that addresses all the systems because different bargaining units are working out their own negotiations with the city. But he said that if the city can work out a deal with labor, like his bill, lawmakers should approve it. “It’s irresponsible for us not to act when...labor and employer, labor and the city, has come to the table [on this bill],” he said. Raoul said that 31 out of the 34 bargaining representing those affected by the plan have offered no opposition to the bill.

Speaker Madigan had a busy day on the House floor today as the chamber also approved a constitutional amendment that he is sponsoring. House Joint Constitutional Amendment Resolution 52 prohibits denying the right to vote based on a person's race, color, ethnicity, status as a member of a language minority, sex, sexual orientation, income national origin or religion. Madigan said the amendment sends the message, “that in Illinois we believe that every legal voter should be treated equally and have the ability to vote for the candidate of their choice.”

Durkin also backed the speaker’s amendment, but others on his side of the aisle panned it as unnecessary. “This is a constitutional amendment looking for a problem,” said Rep. David Reis, a Republican from Willow Hill. Reis is a sponsor of legislation that would require voters to present identification at the polls. Madigan describe such requirements as “voter suppression” during the debate of his amendment.

If the Senate approves the proposal, which seems likely, it will appear before voters on the November ballot. While Madigan has not shared any ulterior motive for the amendment, some see the proposal as geared toward brining out the Democratic base for the general election.

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