SPRINGFIELD -- Legislation endorsed by union leaders that is aimed at cutting into Illinois' massive public pensions debt was approved by a Senate committee on a 10-5 party-line vote Wednesday.
The bill, SB 2404, sponsored by Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago, was supported by all 10 Democrats on the executive committee. It was a product of meetings between Cullerton and representatives of the state AFL-CIO, AFSCME and other public employee unions.
Like other pension proposals around the Statehouse this spring, it is aimed at slashing what is estimated to be a longterm $100 billion public pensions debt in Illinois. Cullerton said his legislation would shave between $8.5 billion and $15.7 billion from the longterm debt.
Sen. Mike Frerichs, D-Champaign, who is not a member of the executive committee, said Wednesday that he would vote for the measure. A Senate floor vote could come as early as Thursday.
"I have told people all along that what I wanted to see was representatives of the public employees to negotiate something that helps solve this problem in a way that shares the pain among all the stakeholders, and not just the employees," he said.
Frerichs said he believes the bill will pass the Senate, but that its future in the House is far less certain.
"I have no idea. I don't make guesses on what the House will do," he said.
Sen. Chapin Rose, R-Mahomet, said he didn't know how he would vote.
"I'm going to look at it tonight. I'm studying it," he said.
But some Republicans on the executive committee said the Cullerton bill doesn't go far enough.
"I just don't think this solves the problem or saves enough money," said Sen. Matt Murphy, R-Palatine. "I think it invites us to have to be back here far too soon to have to face this gap."
The House already has passed a pension reform bill, pushed by Speaker Michael Madigan, which supporters say would save more money, but opponents say is unconstitutional because it diminishes benefits to state employees and retirees, contrary to the state Constitution.
"The House bill isn't perfect. Nobody is happy about it but the reality is it passed that chamber, it has broad support in our caucus and the governor has said he would sign it," Murphy said.
The constitutionality of Cullerton's SB 2404 was one of the main points of contention during Wednesday's hearing, as representatives of the AFL-CIO, the Illinois Education Association and Illinois Federation of Teachers said they believed it would meet a possible court challenge.
But a representative of the Illinois Retired Teachers Association disagreed.
"The IRTA believes that this legislation diminishes the state's responsibility to a contract to which we fulfilled our part in its entirety," said Bob Pinkerton, vice president of the 35,000-member group. "The IRTA believes that this diminishment does not come with any choice that is beneficial to its membership."
Cullerton's plan offers approximately 700,000 state employees and retirees, including downstate and suburban teachers, a choice between either giving up or delaying their annual 3 percent cost of living allowances or sacrificing access to what is now a state-subsidized health care program.
Frerichs said he believed the legislation is constitutional.
"As someone who is not a legal scholar, I believe and trust the attorneys who tell me that it would be more constitutional than the other proposals out there," he said.
The president of the IEA, Cinda Klickna, endorsed the proposal.
"We do believe that 2404 is a constitutional bill. It puts more money in our retirement systems and keeps them solvent," she said. "We believe we have crafted a choice framework that is constitutional and would move us ahead and get off the topic of pensions once and for all."
Dan Montgomery, president of the Illinois Federation of Teachers, said, "I want to be clear. I don't think anyone is jumping for joy that they would see their future pension or life saving diminished or reduced in value."
But, he said, the employees were willing to sacrifice to keep the retirement systems solvent.
"This is coming from teachers, retirees, nurses, no one else," Montgomery said. "I haven't heard the civic commitee (a Chicago group calling for pension cuts), corporations or newspaper editors pledge to give back anything to solve this problem like our public employees have," he said.