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Difference of opinion: Local legislators discuss pension reform measure

<p>Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn hands off a pen during the signing of the&nbsp;<a id="firsthit" name="firsthit"></a>pension&nbsp;overhaul legislation bill Thursday, Dec. 5, 2013, in Chicago. Looking on from left are: state Rep. Mike Zalewski, D-Riverside; Sen. Bill Brady, R-Bloomington; Senate GOP leader Sen. Christine Radogno; Rep. Darlene Senger, R-Naperville; Rep. Jim Durkin, R-Western Springs and House Speaker Michael Madigan. (AP Photo/M. Spencer Green)&nbsp;</p>

Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn hands off a pen during the signing of the pension overhaul legislation bill Thursday, Dec. 5, 2013, in Chicago. Looking on from left are: state Rep. Mike Zalewski, D-Riverside; Sen. Bill Brady, R-Bloomington; Senate GOP leader Sen. Christine Radogno; Rep. Darlene Senger, R-Naperville; Rep. Jim Durkin, R-Western Springs and House Speaker Michael Madigan. (AP Photo/M. Spencer Green) 

Partisan politics weren’t in play when legislators voted on the state’s pension reform bill Tuesday.

Or were they?

The bill, known as Senate Bill 1, passed 62-53 in the House and 30-24 in the Senate. The bill now awaits action from Gov. Pat Quinn, who has promised to swiftly sign it.

Local legislators were somewhat divided on the issue, with some, such as state Rep. Linda Chapa LaVia; a Democrat from Aurora; state Rep. Stephanie Kifowit, a Democrat from Oswego whose district includes a part of Naperville; state Rep. Darlene Senger, a Naperville Republican; and Ron Sandack (R-Downers Grove), whose district includes some of Naperville, supporting it, while state Sen. Linda Holmes, a Democrat from Aurora whose district includes some of Naperville, and state Rep. Jeanne Ives, (R-Wheaton), whose district includes a part of the city, voted against the measure.

The deal — expected to save $160 billion over 30 years and reduce annual pension payments by as much as $1.5 billion — also would hike retirement ages for younger government workers and force some of them to go as many as five years without a post-retirement increase in their pensions.

In return, existing government employees would have less withdrawn from their paychecks to cover pension premiums, and four of the five state retirement systems would get new powers to sue the state if it ever skipped or shorted making annual pension payments.

Senger, who is running for Congress in the 11th District, said passing the bill is a great stride toward improving the business climate in Illinois. She was part of the 10-member, bipartisan pension conference committee tasked with fixing the state’s pension problems.

“With the vote, Illinois gives relief for taxpayers and certainty for public employees, while providing much needed budgetary room for essential services and education,” she said.

Kifowit said the pension reform bill will ensure the pension system is secure for future generations. She said that today’s lawmakers were forced to create a fix for the funding gap made by past legislatures.

“Unfortunately, there were promises made by the legislature that we needed to reverse on. I feel very remorseful that this is the situation that we find ourselves in,” she said.

Holmes, a Democrat, was the only member of the bipartisan pension conference committee not to sign off on the latest pension bill presented to lawmakers.

Holmes subsequently voted against the plan. She compared the pension deal to a thief who comes into houses at night to steal valuables and said the state’s teachers and public sector workers did their part to pay out of their paychecks every week.

“This is inherently unfair,” Holmes said. “This is quite plainly a breach of contract in the most simple of terms.”

Holmes said the funding guarantee in the bill can be reversed by any future general election, and called the move “blatantly unconstitutional.”

Gubernatorial candidates Bill Brady, a Republican state senator from Bloomington voted “yes” on the bill, while state Sen. Kirk Dillard, a Republican from Hinsdale, voted “no.”

Did Holmes, a Democrat, believe that politics were at play to give Democrat Quinn a re-election bump?

“On the political end, I think this was done to give the governor a win,” she said. “And I don’t think that’s worth forsaking benefits for anybody.”

Ives said the reasons she voted against the measure are clear.

“I refuse to adopt the attitude that any bill will do regardless of its principles and content,” she said. “... the Wall Street Journal called out the Illinois GOP in an article entitled ‘Illinois’ Fake Pension Fix’: GOP leaders who are rounding up votes must be feeling especially charitable this holiday season because they’re making an in-kind contribution to Mr. Quinn, who will claim a bipartisan victory as he runs for re-election… Such me-too thinking is why the Illinois GOP has become a useless minority.’ There is no doubt that voting for any legislation dropped on the table is quickly moving us from ‘super-minority’ to ‘irrelevant.’”

She said she believes there needs to be “some pressure to affect the changes we want to see instead of tripping over ourselves to be the first in line to congratulate Mike Madigan on his bipartisan legislation.”

Ives said that “legislators voted for marginal reforms that put retiree pensions in jeopardy, are unaffordable for taxpayers, and erode our ability to balance budgets fairly. We do need pension reform immediately, but not just any pension reform, and certainly not this brand of reform.”

Sandack said he voted in favor of the pension reform bill because he thought something needed to be done.

“The state’s five pension systems are a financial mess. Reforming them is the single most important issue facing the state of Illinois,” he said. “The ongoing pension crisis negatively affects every other necessary state activity including public education, infrastructure maintenance, public health conditions and the cost of borrowing. The future well-being of Illinois families is in jeopardy absent a pension solution. There’s simply no fixing Illinois in the absence of meaningful pension reform, so ... I voted in favor of Senate Bill 1.

“This vote was difficult for many as we want to be fair to the hard-working people in the pension systems, and it is out of that need for fairness that I voted ... to protect our pension systems from collapse. These reform measures are a good first step in ensuring that pensions are available when hard-working and dedicated public employees retire.

“I appreciate the efforts of the conference committee and the compromise that was reached by the four legislative leaders. While I view this bill as less than perfect, I respect the process and am glad to have been able to take this important first step forward in improving the financial condition of our state,” he said.

 

Sun-Times Media contributed to this report.

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