SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) — Illinois lawmakers were poised Tuesday to vote on a plan to solve the state’s $100 billion pension crisis — a proposal many are calling the most important vote of their careers and one that could deeply reduce the retirement benefits of hundreds of thousands of workers and retirees.
At a hearing on the measure Tuesday morning, House Speaker Michael Madigan called the pension shortfall — the worst of any state in the country — “one of the most serious problems affecting the state of Illinois.”
“Change must be done,” the Chicago Democrat said.
But public-employee labor unions called the plan unfair and unconstitutional and were continuing their efforts to kill it. Dan Montgomery, president of the Illinois Federation of Teachers, said it would severely cut the retirees’ benefits and could only be described as “theft.”
“How can you do this to the good people who serve our state?” Montgomery said.
Nine of the 10 members of a bipartisan pension conference committee signed off on the deal late Monday, sending it to the floors of both the House and Senate, where votes were expected later Tuesday. But passage in those Democrat-controlled chambers is not a sure bet. The committee’s chairman, Sen. Kwame Raoul, said Senate President John Cullerton was still working to ensure “yes” votes Tuesday morning.
Illinois’ unfunded pension liability was caused primarily by lawmakers who failed for decades to make the state’s full payments to the funds.
Even as other states with similar pension messes took action in recent years, the General Assembly was unable to come up with its own solution. Meanwhile, the major credit rating agencies downgraded Illinois to the lowest credit rating of any state in the country, and annual pension payments grew to about one-fifth of the state’s general funds budget, taking money away from schools, roads and other areas.
The pension proposal is estimated to save the state $160 billion over 30 years and fully fund the systems by 2044.