Mt. Vernon Register-News

November 28, 2013

GOP governor candidates mostly quiet on pensions


Associated Press

CHICAGO — — While an agreement on a pension reform deal comes as a boost to Gov. Pat Quinn's bid for re-election, most Republicans seeking his job are hedging their reactions to navigate politically tricky waters.

Although all four GOP candidates are running on a platform of fiscal responsibility, only one has announced his support for the plan embraced by Quinn and other top Democrats. And that Republican, state Sen. Bill Brady, was one of 10 members of a committee that helped develop it.

"In concept, it's pretty much what we negotiated over this last year," Brady told The Associated Press. "Although it's not perfect it's significant and as good (of an agreement) as we're going to get."

Supporters estimate that the plan, which lawmakers are expected to vote on next week in Springfield, would save $160 billion over 30 years.

So far, no candidate has come out against the plan aimed at solving what for decades has been cited as the state's biggest financial problem. However, while opposing the deal may seem counterintuitive, it also could help Republicans emerge from the crowded March primary.

"It's always better to be against stuff like this politically than for it," Chris Mooney, director of the University of Illinois' Institute for Government and Public Affairs, said. "If it's not yours, not 100 percent yours, then why give him (Quinn) the benefit?"

Venture Capitalist Bruce Rauner, a harsh critic of public sector unions, is expected to oppose the plan, but has so far only released a statement noting "Springfield insiders" have kept Illinoisans in the dark about details of the bill, and that's "rarely a good sign for taxpayers."

Barb Frobish, a spokeswoman for Dan Rutherford's campaign, said the state treasurer hasn't seen details of the agreement and wasn't prepared to make comment.

Republican State Sen. Kirk Dillard's campaign did not respond to several requests for comment on the deal.

The proposal, announced by legislative leaders following a Wednesday meeting, includes pushing back workers' retirement age on a sliding scale, a funding guarantee, a 401(k)-style option and reducing the employee contribution.

House Speaker Michael Madigan said retirees would continue to receive the current 3 percent annual compounded cost-of-living increases, but they would only get that rate up to a certain amount of annuity payments, based on years of employment. He says the new way of calculating the increases would benefit low-income workers who worked longer.

The funding guarantee allows retirement systems to sue Illinois if lawmakers don't make the full contribution to the fund each year.

The plan also would require the state to put 10 percent of the money saved annually through benefit cuts back into the pension funds beginning in 2016. It also will redirect the money the state currently uses for pension bond payments into the retirement funds once those bonds are paid off in 2019.

Quinn has said he was "put on earth" to solve the state's pension crisis, and even halted lawmaker's pay over the issue, until a court deemed the move unconstitutional. With a deal being accomplished, he can easily claim credit, Mooney said.

Rauner has made numerous public statements about severely reforming any defined benefit plan offered by the state. Supporting such a plan poses a risk that Republican opponents could say the changed his tune.

While Dillard voted for a similar savings plan that failed in the Senate last spring, changing his could help net win votes from southern Illinois, a traditionally Republican sector of the state known for its large public employee unions, where in many communities state prisons and school districts offer predominant sources of employment.

"(He) can always say I voted for it at the time because I wanted to vote for something before the session was over," University of Illinois at Springfield professor Charles Wheeler said, adding that if the plan fails, a "no" vote could, in turn, prove politically costly.

Brady said he'd already weighed the political risks.

"This is more important than any gubernatorial campaign," he said.