SPRINGFIELD — Illinois senators narrowly approved a slimmed-down pension reform measure Wednesday, but only after rejecting a more ambitious plan that had bipartisan support, although not enough.
The proposal (SB 1) which was approved, 30-22, is sponsored by Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago, and was modified Wednesday so that it covers only active teachers. For now it would have no effect on state employees, university employees, judges or legislators.
Two companion pieces of legislation sponsored by Cullerton, covering the other employee groups, were not called for a vote.
No Republicans voted for the Cullerton pension bill, and a number of Democrats, including Sen. Mike Frerichs, D-Champaign, also voted against it.
"Something needs to be done to reform the system and I'm working to bring all the parties together on something we all can agree upon," he said. "But I don't think we're there yet."
He said that "a lot of my constituents" — which includes a large number of state and university employees — "are coming to realize that we need to do something to reform the system but I don't think that (Cullerton's bill) was the answer."
Cullerton's bill would give active public school teachers downstate and in the Chicago suburbs a choice between access to state-subsidized health care coverage and compounded, annual 3 percent increases in their pension.
Supporters claim Cullerton's bill has a better chance of being found constitutional because it offers state employees the choice.
The other pension reform measure — which was rejected by the Senate Wednesday (SB 35) — promised greater cost savings but opponents said it was more likely to be found unconstitutional. That measure, sponsored by Sen. Daniel Biss, D-Skokie, attracted some Republican support but not enough from Democrats. It failed, 23-30, and among East Central Illinois senators got backing only from Sen. Bill Brady, R-Bloomington.
"I see all of this as a gradual progression," said Sen. Chapin Rose, R-Mahomet. "If you start tweaking this cost of living adjustment cap on people who have already retired, you started putting this thing together."
Rose said he wished the Legislature would stay in session for the next two weeks — when it is scheduled to take a recess — "on joint House and Senate meetings and just focus on this and not anything else. I would take everything else off."
Sen. Jason Barickman, R-Bloomington, criticized the "piecemeal approach" of Cullerton's bill.
The Senate president acknowledged there's more work to do.
"I will continue to advocate for a more comprehensive package that addresses state employees, university employees and the General Assembly retirement systems," Cullerton said in a statement. "The work of building a coalition of 30 votes is going to require more heavy lifting. I'm committed to this goal and look forward to passing a full reform plan this session."
He said his pension plan would save the state at least $18 billion over the next 30 years and would reduce the state's unfunded liability by $4.7 billion. But Biss' bill, supporters said, would have saved the state as much as $160 billion over 30 years and would have reduced the unfunded liability by $28 billion.
Illinois' pension system, which is ranked the worst in the nation, has an unfunded liability of close to $100 billion. Gov. Pat Quinn has warned that pension benefits and laws have to be revised before pension costs cut even more into state programs and services, including education and higher education.