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House votes to make public colleges and universities pay for employees' pensions

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SPRINGFIELD-The Illinois House Thursday passed a plan requiring public universities and community colleges to gradually begin picking up the tab for their employees' pensions starting next year.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Elaine Nekritz (D-Northbrook), passed with just enough votes by a 60-55 margin over concerns that the extra burden on schools would spur property-tax and tuition increases. The bill now moves to the Senate.

"We need to ensure that, like every employer in the private sector, the employer takes account of the full cost of wages and benefits," Nekritz said. "This bill makes the employer responsible for the full cost of the wages and benefits. It's the right thing to do."

Under the plan, long-sought by House Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago), the state's public universities and community colleges would pay an additional one-half percent of payroll costs each year starting July 1, 2014 until they cover all costs. The schools would not have to cover any previous pension payments the state failed to make.

Any new benefits to the pension system would have to be approved by a three-fourths vote in the Legislature, up from what is currently approved by a simple majority. If the Legislature approves new benefits, they would then be subject to a vote by the pension systems board of trustees and then each school itself.

The plan does not shift pension costs for elementary and secondary schools outside of Chicago, but Madigan has said that idea is impending. The cost-shift has been part of more sweeping past pension packages but has been perennially rejected by Republicans and suburban and Downstate Democrats.

In a fiery debate where one Republican House member voiced his hope that any members who supported the bill would be hunted by "a person who comes after you like a rabid dog," many opponents thought the measure premature since the prospects of overall pension reform remain uncertain.

"Before we go down any road, any road whatsoever on cost-shift, we need real, substantive pension reform, and that hasn't happened," House Republican leader Tom Cross (R-Oswego) said. "And now we come along and say to the universities we want you to be involved with fixing a problem created by the Illinois General Assembly. Welcome to our mess."

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