Illinois Lawmakers, Labor Spar Over How To Fix Gaping Pension Gap

Dec 2, 2013
Originally published on December 2, 2013 6:12 pm
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Lawmakers in Illinois are expected to vote tomorrow on a deal to trim a $100 billion deficit in the state's employee pension funds. For years, the Democratic-controlled legislature has been unable to agree on how to fix the biggest pension deficit in the nation. But as NPR's David Schaper reports from Chicago, the new compromise is angering an important voting constituency.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) Where is Christian? Where is Christian? Here I am.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: A vocal group of retired state government employee sings in a protest lobby of State Representative Christian Mitchell's Chicago office. But as their song suggests, Mitchell isn't there.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) Where is Christian? Where is Christian? Where is Christian?

SCHAPER: This and similar groups of retired state workers targeted the offices of several key legislators today. They want them to vote against a pension reform plan in a special Illinois legislative session tomorrow. The deal would eliminate a 3 percent annual cost of living raise and would increase the retirement age for younger workers. And union leaders say that could amount to a 30 percent reduction in retirement income over 25 years.

JENNIFER EDWARDS: We did what we were supposed to do.

SCHAPER: That's Jennifer Edwards. She worked for 30 years at the University of Illinois Chicago and says she paid in her share while state lawmakers shortchanged the retirement funds.

EDWARDS: We had no choice. They didn't do what they were supposed to do. But now, they want to penalize us.

SCHAPER: State retirees are threatening to sue if the legislation passes. They argue it violates the Illinois constitution, which states that pension benefits shall not be diminished or impaired.

LAURENCE MSALL: The state of Illinois is in horrible financial condition.

SCHAPER: Laurence Msall of the Civic Federation says years of legislative inaction has only made the state's pension crisis worse, leaving Illinois taxpayers under the crushing weight of $100 billion of pension debt.

MSALL: If that can't be reduced to a level that's more sustainable, then there's not going to be any new money in the future for education, public safety or infrastructure. It is all going to have to go into the pension system.

SCHAPER: Legislative leaders of both parties who crafted the pension changes say they will save the state $160 billion over the next 30 years. But some rank and file Democrats may not be willing to vote against the powerful employee unions who bash the deal as a crude attack on public workers, while some rank and file Republicans complain that the pension cuts don't go far enough. That means the outcome of a difficult vote in tomorrow's special Illinois legislative session is far from certain.

David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.