Illinois Pension Debate Involves Cash, Confusion

SPRINGFIELD - A battle to reduce the cost of public employee pensions is being waged in the corridors of the Capitol and on telephone lines across the state.

With Illinois lawmakers potentially considering a plan that would alter pension payments and benefits for current state employees, public-sector unions have joined forces in a fight against groups backed by Big Business.

Both sides are spending heavily on the effort, with the union tab at more than $1 million. The business side is financing newspaper ads and automated telephone calls to voters, urging people to call their representatives.

State Rep. Dan Brady, R-Bloomington, is among those targeted by the phone campaign. His office has been flooded with about 100 calls a day this week from people who were contacted by a group called "Illinois Is Broke."

Brady said some people believe he's the one initiating the calls.

"They think this is coming from my office. It's not," Brady said. "I have nothing to do with it. They are extremely misleading."

The organization behind the calls has connections to Americans For Prosperity, the group founded and funded in part by Kansas industrialist David Koch.

Koch is linked to Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who sparked massive protests in Madison earlier this year with a proposal to strip government workers of their collective bargaining rights.

At issue is a debate over how to reduce the cost of paying for state worker pensions, which lawmakers have underfunded for years. The state's unfunded liability tops $80 billion, according to a report from the Pew Center for the States.

Although specific language hasn't been released, one proposal would attempt to force current employees to either pay more into their retirement plans or receive fewer benefits.

Like Brady, state Rep. Mike Bost, R-Murphysboro, said his office phones have been clogged by callers on both sides of the pension question.

"They are running people scared," Bost said. "This is pretty extreme stuff."

Bost said the calls are potentially blocking his ability to help manage his district's response to flooding in the region.

Both Brady and Bost said they haven't take a side on the legislation.

"We've got to deal with some form of modification to make sure the pensions are still around in the future. But we've got to come to a balance," Bost said.

"I haven't seen a bill," Brady said. "If I'm going to be for or against something, I need to see the language."

It remains unclear whether any pension changes will be pushed through the General Assembly this spring. A legal analysis by the top attorney for Senate President John Cullerton earlier determined that the Illinois Constitution prohibits changing retirement benefits for current employees.

Attempts to reach representatives of "Illinois Is Broke" were not immediately successful Thursday.

Union groups, including those representing prison guards, firefighters and laborers, say the pension shortfall is not the fault of workers but has grown because of a failure by politicians to make adequate payments into the fund.

Anders Lindall, spokesman for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union, said the ads and phone calls being financed by the business groups are full of "twisted, nasty misinformation."

In a letter to the General Assembly's legislative leaders, the union groups asked that any pension proposals not be rushed through the process. Hoping to avoid a repeat of last year's scenario in which major pension reform flew through the House and Senate in 12 hours, they want a seven-day waiting period in order to review the legislation.

"We believe the repercussions of such legislation - directly affecting the well-being of hundreds of thousands of individuals who give their working lives to public service in our state - should be given a full airing and thoughtful public examination," the letter said.