Thursday, March 07, 2013

House takes first affirmative vote on pension change

By Jamey Dunn

The Illinois House voted today in favor of a cap on the amount of salary that can be used to determine benefits for public employee pensions.

The chamber approved the measure as an amendment to a bill but did not take a floor vote on the underlying legislation. The move came as part of a series of test votes on pension changes and is the first proposal that has won the approval of the majority of the chamber under the process, which is referred to as a “Weekly Order of Business.”

The proposal would cap the amount of salary that benefits are based on at the level of salary on which Social Security benefits are based. That number is tied to a federal measure of inflation. This year, it is $113,700. Employees who currently make more than that would see their pensionable salary capped at its current level. Supporters estimate the change could save $1 billion.

Northbrook Democratic Rep. Elaine Nekritz, who has been spearheading pension reform efforts in the chamber, said she was “thrilled” at the approval of the proposal, which is a component of legislation she is sponsoring. House Bill 3411, which Nekrtiz co-sponsors with House Minority Leader Tom Cross, would also require employees to contribute 2 percent more of their salaries toward their retirement, and cap the amount of pension benefits on which cost of living adjustments (COLAs) would be applied. Nekritz and Cross intend to present the bill in a House committee next week.

“I think it demonstrates that the process that we’re going through — we don’t have to be so cynical about it — it can get us to a solution,” Nekrtiz said of today's vote.

The House soundly rejected two other measures today. One would have frozen the cost of living adjustments for retirees for 10 years. It got two “yes” votes. Eleven House members voted in favor of the other proposal, which would have required employees to contribute 4 percent more of their salaries toward their retirement costs. House Republicans generally refused to participate in the process. All but two did not cast votes on any of the pension amendments considered today. They took the same approach last week when Democrats ran several other proposed pension changes through the same process. “We feel that this issue is far too important to try to piecemeal a bill together,” said Sara Wojcicki Jimenez, a spokeswoman for Cross. She said Republicans instead prefer moving HB 3411 through the traditional legislative process.

House Speaker Michael Madigan accused Republicans of shirking their responsibilities by refusing to cast votes. “The Republicans, I think, made a mistake. So they’re elected, and their electors tell them to come here and to vote. They don’t tell them to come here and not participate,” Madigan told Jak Tichenor, host of public television’s Illinois Lawmakers.

Madigan explained the reason for the test votes: “To better educate the members of the House and the Senate, if they’re watching what we’re doing. Because my sense is — of the attitude of the members of the legislature — is that they’re not yet ready to take this difficult step. And so ... presenting these propositions on the floor where there’s a requirement that people vote will help them understand how grave the situation is [and] the difficulty of the proposed changes. And so, we’ll continue that process over the next several weeks.”

 Nekrtiz said she thinks the process is helping her colleagues understand the individual components that may eventually make up a plan to change pensions. “I think it’s working. I really do,” she said.

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