It was an interesting roll call in the Illinois House last week that culminated in the first big breakthrough on a pension reform bill.
The House approved, 66-50, a bill (HB 1165) that would limit cost-of-living adjustments for public employee retirees and delay the start of the COLAs until a worker is retired five years or turns 67. The change, supporters said, would save the state as much as $100 billion over the next 30 years, trim the state's unfunded liability (now about $100 billion) by as much as $20 billion and cut more than $1 billion from next year's state pension payment.
But it also would, supporters admit, hurt retirees. And it may not be constitutional because it is a diminishment of benefits, something that is prohibited by the state Constitution. Further, the legislation applies to downstate and suburban teachers, university employees, state workers and legislators — but not judges.
The roll call was telling.
Most downstaters — Democrats, Republicans, conservatives, liberals — avoided the pension bill like it was a goodie for Chicago. Politically that makes sense because downstate is where the bulk of the state's prisons and universities, with their big numbers of retirees and employees, are located.
Among the "no" votes were nearly every area representative, from the liberal Naomi Jakobsson, D-Urbana, to the conservative Adam Brown, R-Champaign. Others opposed include area GOP Reps. Josh Harms, Chad Hays and Bill Mitchell.
The only downstaters to support the controversial reform, which is opposed by public employee unions, were Rep. Brad Halbrooke, R-Shelbyville; John Bradley, D-Marion; Jehan Gordon-Booth, D-Peoria; Dwight Kay, R-Edwardsville; David Leitch, R-Peoria; Jil Tracy, R-Quincy; and Robert Pritchard, R-Sycamore.
Pritchard's is the most surprising since he represents the district that includes Northern Illinois University.
University of Illinois President Robert Easter got some tough questioning about salaries last week in an Illinois Senate committee, even though the list that senators were referring to, later obtained by The News-Gazette, shows that Easter himself is being paid $450,000 this year, a lot less than the $651,000 his predecessor, Michael Hogan, received.
In fact, Easter ranks third among the top 10 UI salaries. (Senate staff gave senators a list of the top 10 salaries at each university). The UI list: Dimitri Azar, chief of service and dean of College of Medicine, UIC, $657,694; Phyllis Wise, Urbana chancellor, $512,500; Easter, $450,000; Asrar Malik, department head, pharmacology, and director of Center for Lung and Vascular Biology, $442,948; Jasti Rao, department head, Cancer Biology & Pharmacology and senior associate dean for research, UIC, $441,657; Ilesanmi Adesida, vice chancellor for academic affairs and provost, UIUC, $425,000; Paula Meares, chancellor, UIC, $411,752; Arthur Kramer, director of Beckman Center and Swanlund Chair and Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience, $396,447; Christophe Pierre, professor and vice president of academic affairs, $381,777; and J. Regan Thomas, chief of services, assistant director of the Facial Plastic Surgery Center, UIC, $364,785.
The UI's salary list is not unlike the one for Southern Illinois University, which also has a medical school. For the fiscal year beginning July 1, the top three posts at SIU, and six of the top 10, are affiliated with the SIU medical school. SIU-Carbondale Chancellor Rita Cheng is No. 4 at $347,976 and SIU President Glenn Poshard is fifth at $326,820.
Eastern Illinois University's top earner is President William Perry, who will make $290,000 next year. At both Illinois State and Northern Illinois universities, retiring presidents are slated to be the highest-paid employees next year. ISU's Al Bowman is to make $400,000 and NIU's John Peters will make $337,500.
Big spending in Parkland race
The three candidates for two spots on the Parkland College board are spending fairly big money for the April 9 election.
Tom Bennett of Gibson City and James Ayers of Monticello, incumbent members who are running as a team, have collected at least $9,000 for their campaign fund, which is called "Experienced Leadership for Parkland College Trustee 2013."
Challenger Sam McGrew of Champaign, a former state legislator and school superintendent, has loaned his campaign fund $5,000.
Wishes for a speedy recovery go to Stanley "Steve" O'Connor, a former Champaign County Board member from rural Urbana, who is recovering from recent surgery. His longtime friend, Gary Maxwell, a current Republican board member, told the board Thursday that O'Connor was expected to return home this weekend.
(Some) county chairmen back Quinn
A large group of Democratic county chairmen has already endorsed Gov. Pat Quinn for another term, effectively ruling out support for Attorney General Lisa Madigan. But the group does not include the county chairmen from Champaign and Vermilion counties.
The letter, sent out last week and signed by 52 of the 102 Democratic chiefs, says that Quinn "has restored honor and integrity to Illinois."
"To clean up the mess he inherited, he's had to make unpopular decisions, including some that have angered our allies. But in hard times more than ever, we need a truth-telling leader, unafraid of ruffling feathers and making tough decisions."
The letter also says that money spent in a primary race (presumably for Madigan) "is a dollar not spent in our inevitable war against the Republican money machine in 2014. The last thing we need is a right-wing, anti-worker Republican driving us back into recession."
The letter is signed by Democratic chairmen from DeWitt, Douglas, Macon, Piatt and Shelby counties.
Al Klein, head of the Champaign County Democratic Party, said he was not asked to sign the letter and would have declined if he had.
"We will not be endorsing in any national or state race. We will be promoting open discussion," he said. "I could stretch the point and go out on the limb myself, but that's never been wise. The chairman has always been seen as essentially speaking for the party, and I shouldn't try to confuse the issue by speaking for myself."
Klein said he hopes that some prospective statewide candidates attend the party's annual spring dinner, set for April 28 at the I Hotel in Champaign.
Vermilion County Chairman Greg Lietz said he, too, wasn't asked to sign the letter. Nor would he have done so.
"We don't endorse candidates and that in my opinion applies clear up to the governor's race. I can't do that," Lietz said.
Watch this one
County board members Thursday night endured a half-hour presentation about a proposed Midwest Athletic Complex & Institute that would be built in the Clearview subdivision in northwest Champaign.
It's unclear for now what the indoor/outdoor complex would have to do with Champaign County. During their rollout, the organizers didn't ask for grants, loans or even an endorsement. But their PowerPoint presentation included a reference to possible bond sales or other government assistance. All this for a project not unlike what park districts, the YMCA and private enterprise already provide.
Tom Kacich is a News-Gazette editor and columnist. His column appears Sundays and Wednesdays. He can be reached at 351-5221 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.