Unions Win as Illinois Lawmakers Put Off Pension Reform until Fall

SPRINGFIELD — House Speaker Michael Madigan and House Minority Leader Tom Cross abruptly pulled the plug Monday on legislation forcing government workers to pay more for their pensions in a major win for the state’s public-employee unions.

Madigan (D-Chicago) and Cross (R-Oswego) faced an almost unheard-of legislative setback, succumbing to a dizzying letter-writing and phone-calling campaign to rank-and-file lawmakers by more than a half-dozen unions.

After passing out of a House committee last week, Madigan’s and Cross’s legislative package drew support from no more than 45 House members when 60 votes were needed to pass a bill, union sources told the Chicago Sun-Times.

“Thanks to the most potent grassroots lobbying campaign ever waged, we have blocked passage of a measure backed by leaders of both political parties and the biggest corporations in the state of Illinois,” Henry Bayer, executive director of AFSCME Council 31, said in a prepared statement.

Madigan and Cross issued a joint statement with Tyrone Fahner, the head of the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago, in announcing the pension-reform package was dead for the spring.

“Our goal is to enact reforms to our pension systems that provide a long-term solution for both those who are members of the pension systems and those who fund them,” their statement said.

“We will convene meetings over the summer to address the issues and concerns that have been raised and work toward a solution in this year’s fall veto session,” they said.

Under the Madigan-Cross legislation, existing teachers and state employees would have been given a choice of three retirement plans in which to enroll — one that preserves existing pension benefits, another with reduced pension benefits and a third that would amount to a 401(k)-style retirement plan.

The highest-priced plan would enable existing state workers, teachers, judges and lawmakers to preserve their current post-retirement annuities that top out at between 75 and 85 percent of their final salaries, though it is a rarity for all but the longest-serving state employees to max out on their pension.

Their plan would have required higher employee contributions, and those contributions would have increased every three years.

A state worker now seeing 4 percent of his or her paycheck withheld as a pension contribution would have seen that amount increase to 9.29 percent under the legislation.

While Madigan and Cross vowed to revisit the pension issue in the fall, union sources discounted the possibility that opposition to their package would significantly soften.

By fall, Democratic House and Senate members likely would be looking for union support while launching their re-election bids in redrawn legislative districts, making an anti-union vote on pension reform seem unlikely.