SPRINGFIELD-Though closely divided on pension solutions, a large majority of Illinois voters are against making the state's income tax increase permanent, according to a poll released Thursday by the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute.
"There's a general feeling that state employees are going to have to take some losses in their pension plans, but a majority of people in Illinois is not supportive of draconian measures," said John Jackson, a visiting professor at the institute.
Voters responded fairly evenly on a number of potential fixes to the pension problem, but a proposal to make the state's recently passed income tax hike permanent received the strongest opposition with more than 63 percent against it and 44 percent "strongly opposed" to the idea.
Passed by the General Assembly in 2011, the 2 percent hike is set to completely expire by 2015. However, Rep. Lou Lang (D-Skokie) introduced the most recent pension-fix package in the Legislature Wednesday, and his bill makes the increase permanent with proceeds going to the five retirement systems.
Gov. Pat Quinn joins the ranks of the nearly two-thirds of the poll's voters against the idea and thinks a pension solution needs to address more than only a new stream of revenue.
"I think we have to deal with it on a comprehensive basis," Quinn said at a press conference Wednesday. "It's not just about revenue. It's a lot more than that.
"We have a law in place that I've supported, and it goes until the end of 2014. And we'll go with that."
Most of the poll's voters agree that purely a boost in revenue is not the best route to address the state's $4 billion budget deficit either. Nearly 55 percent said the gap should be fixed by cutting waste and inefficiency, while close to 30 percent sought a combination of budget cuts and revenue increases. Most were also against expanding the state sales tax, with 43 percent strongly opposed.
On Wednesday, Quinn didn't say which specific provisions he'd like to see in a pension proposal but called Senate Bill 1, sponsored by Senate President John Cullerton (D-Chicago), the "right vehicle."
"The bottom line is to get the best bill we can to save the money we need to save in order to have a good state," Quinn said. "We cannot just run in place. Illinois' economy needs this reform on pensions done now because we can't have our economy held hostage to it."
One part of Senate Bill 1 would temporarily suspend and reduce retirees' annual cost-of-living (COLA) increases, which are one of the most significant forces behind Illinois' swelling pension costs.
When asked about capping COLA increases at the first $25,000 of retirees' pensions, poll-takers were evenly split, with about 45 percent in support and 44 percent opposed to the idea. But a 57 percent majority opposed suspending retirees' annual COLA increases for the next six years, with only about 36 percent in favor of it.
Respondents were also divided when asked about increasing the age retirees could receive full pension benefits from 65 to 67 years old. Though nearly 59 percent supported this proposal, 35 percent were strongly in favor of it and 29 percent were strongly opposed.
Along those lines, voters responded with 49 percent in favor and about 48 percent against the idea of increasing the age retirees could receive state health benefits from 65 to 67 years old.
The poll's respondents also voted closely when asked about the highly controversial proposal to make local school districts outside of Chicago pay more of the cost of their teachers' pensions. Chicago districts already make these payments, while state money funds teachers' pensions outside of the city.
Overall, 45 percent of voters favor the cost-shift, while about 42 percent are against it. Most support came from Chicago and its suburbs where nearly half of the voters favor the idea, but only about 36 percent of downstate voters showed support.
The poll surveyed 600 registered voters across the state from Jan. 27 through Feb. 8 and has a plus or minus 4 percent margin of error.