Illinois House committee OKs pension commission

January 8, 2013 3:14:31 PM PST
Unable to get lawmakers to agree on a fix for the state's $96 billion pension crisis, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn is proposing a commission to recommend fixes that would become law unless the Legislature rejects them.

As a House bill crumbled in the last hours of the Legislature's lame-duck session, Quinn and the legislation's sponsor offered a last-ditch pitch to create an extra-legislative commission. The committee approved the measure 7-2. It was expected to be taken up on the House floor Tuesday afternoon.

"It's time to realize under this emergency ... that we have to take an extraordinary action to help break the gridlock," the Democratic governor told the Personnel and Pensions Committee.

The change would create an eight-member commission to come up with recommendations by April 30. It could enact those reforms with a majority of five votes unless overturned by the Legislature.

Quinn likened it to a federal commission formed to close military bases - a structure he said was set up because a majority of lawmakers never could agree on which bases to close, just as Illinois lawmakers can't reach a deal on pension reform.

Rep. Elaine Nekritz, a Northbrook Democrat, began the day doubtful that she had 60 votes needed for the House to adopt her plan that would require more employee contributions and freeze annual cost-of-living increases.

She said Quinn came to her Monday with the idea of creating the commission. When it became clear she didn't have the votes for the more comprehensive bill, she opted to proceed with the governor's suggestion.

"There are clearly members who would prefer not to vote on pension reform, so this is an alternative to that," Nekritz said.

Union officials called the proposed commission a "desperate Hail Mary pass," ''disturbing" and "a travesty of process."

"You could say it's clever," said Dan Montgomery, president of the Illinois Federation of Teachers. "I would say unfortunately I think it's kind of a cynical and seemingly reasonable but rather sad attempt to get something done."

House Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie, D-Chicago, voted for the measure to move it to the floor despite serious reservations about its constitutionality and disagreed with the Democratic governor's likening the proposed commission to the former Compensation Review Board, which had a "limited" role in determining lawmaker salaries.

"This is enormous. We're talking about four pensions systems, each of which is extremely complex," Curries said. "I have the same concerns others have voiced about the inappropriate and improper delegation of authority that I take very much to heart."

The commission members could be members of the public who have never been elected to office. Each of the four legislative leaders - Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton and Republican House Leader Tom Cross and Senate Leader Christine Radogno - would get to choose two people to serve.

Union representatives said they believe letting a commission decide pension reform runs counter to the democratic process because the members wouldn't necessarily be elected officials. They renewed a call for lawmakers to join them for a pension summit to come up with a compromise plan.

"We have plenty of time to do this right," said John Cameron of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 31.

Quinn says he is concerned that if the Legislature doesn't act before the session ends just before noon Wednesday, bond rating agencies will again lower Illinois' rating, making it more difficult for the state to issue bonds.

If the proposal passes the House Tuesday afternoon it would go to the Senate for a vote, most likely Tuesday evening.


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