SPRINGFIELD-In a rare step into the public spotlight Wednesday, Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan advanced his new pension package to reign in annual pension increases for retired state workers and teachers over the misgivings of state union leaders.
Madigan's measure, which he said will see a vote on the House floor Thursday, moved out of the House Personnel and Pensions Committee on a bi-partisan 9-1 vote. After the hearing, the speaker unflappably predicted the bill's passage in both the House and the Senate.
"This amendment would offer comprehensive reform to the Illinois pension systems," Madigan testified before committee members. "It would bring solvency and stability to the four [pension] systems."
The proposal has the support of House Republican leader Tom Cross (R-Oswego), and it gained more traction Wednesday when he signed on as one of the bill's co-sponsors along with House pension experts Rep. Elaine Nekritz (D-Northbrook) and Rep. Darlene Senger (R-Naperville).
"We need to do benefit reform," Cross told reporters after the hearing. "If we want to have a pension system down the road that doesn't create crowding out, we need to do it this way. And I think this does it."
But union leaders repeatedly contended that Illinois' pension crisis is a result of the state not making its contributions to the system and that Madigan's plan attempts to fix the system on the backs of public sector workers.
"We are here today because of a problem created when the state put its payments to the pension fund on a credit card," AFSCME Council 31 executive director Henry Bayer. "It's a good thing you're not kicking the can down the road, but it's a bad thing that you're kicking our members in the butt."
Madigan's plan resembles and makes changes to an earlier bill crafted by Cross and Nekritz. The new language would change retirees' annual retirement increases by giving them the lesser of either 3 percent of their annual annuity or a total equal to their numbers of years of service, multiplied by $1,000.
The plan would also reduce the salary that pensions can be calculated from to $109,000, which is down from the $113,700 proposed in the earlier measure. Originally a key point in the speaker's blueprint, Madigan omitted a provision to make suburban and downstate school districts start covering the state's tab for the pensions of retired teachers and school administrators.
"This is a gut-punch to the state's teachers, university workers, firemen, nurses, all our public employees, and it's unnecessary," said Illinois Federation of Teachers President Dan Montgomery, who spoke against the bill in committee.
"The union coalition for a long time has been saying there is a way to find reform that is collaboratively found, that can meet a constitutional test and that solves the state's problems. We don't want a two-year legal battle anymore than they do, and they should seek to work with us to prevent that."
Even if the unions don't follow through with a legal challenge, the speaker's plan to save the state from its $97 billion pension mess will most certainly head to the Illinois Supreme Court where the measure's fate remains uncertain. However, Madigan confidently predicted the high court would back his proposal.
"I think that there will be at least four members of the Illinois Supreme Court that will approve the bill," he told reporters. "It's just my judgment."
But before the courts can rule on Madigan's pension formula, the bill has to clear two major hurdles: the House and the Senate.
Madigan told reporters he has spoken with Senate President John Cullerton (D-Chicago) "on numerous occasions" and thinks his bill will pass in Cullerton's chamber, but Madigan said he was unsure of when the Senate might take a vote.
"You should address that question to [Cullerton], but it was with his consent and direction that I put the amendment on [Cullerton's bill]," he said.
While the pension overhaul's prospects are still uncertain in the Senate, Thursday's roll call in the House appears to be on track to reach the necessary 60 votes.
"My sense is and my belief is that this thing will get out of the House when it's called for a vote. I have absolutely no idea what the Senate's going to do," Cross said.
"I think it puts a lot of pressure on the Senate and creates some momentum where you've got a bi-partisan effort coming out of the House for the Senate to act on it or in some form of a very meaningful bill."
If the bill does make it out of the Legislature with no major changes, Gov. Pat Quinn has said he would sign it into law.
"Illinois' economy will not fully recover until the General Assembly passes this comprehensive pension reform and sends the bill to my desk," Quinn said Wednesday in a prepared statement. "The taxpayers of Illinois are waiting. Let's get the job done."
Meanwhile, late-session thrusts like this one had Cross jokingly recall a time at the end of last year's legislative session when Madigan pushed through a pension bill "and turned it over to [Cross] at the last minute." But this time, Cross believes the speaker's efforts are bona fide.
"I hope it's not a game, and I don't think it is," Cross said. "I just got the sense in the room today that this is real. It's just a gut. I don't like to predict anything in this building, but I think this is real in the House. But again, I think the million-dollar question is what happens over in the Senate."