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General Assembly session ends without action on benefits legislation

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The spring session of the General Assembly ended Tuesday without final action on legislation that would have required current and retired state employees to pay more for benefits.

Chief sponsors of the bills said they plan to refine the measures over the next several months and reintroduce them in the fall.

“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,” said a statement by Speaker of the House Michael Madigan and Illinois Minority Leader Tom Cross, chief sponsors of HB 512.

HB 512, which was approved by the House Personnel and Pensions Committee and moved to the House floor Thursday, would have required current state employees to contribute almost twice as much to pensions to keep benefits at the same level.

Another measure, SB 175, would have required retired state workers to pay more for health insurance. The bill, sponsored by Sen. Jeff Schoenberg, D-Evanston, passed the Senate Executive committee Sunday night but was not called for a vote before the session ended Tuesday.

“We all acknowledge that there are ways to improve this further,” Schoenberg told the State Journal-Register. “We’ll work on that over the summer.”

University of Illinois President Michael Hogan and governmental relations staff were in Springfield in the closing days of the session, talking with legislators about the negative effects the bills would have on the university and the state’s long-term future.

“I think it's clear that the university makes a tremendous contribution to the state — it may be the state's best investment in terms of the dollars the state gets back, the improved quality of life for citizens that our work generates, and the opportunities for ongoing growth and improvement we provide,” Hogan told the House pensions committee in testimony Thursday.

The president and governmental relations staff will continue their work over the summer “and will return to the legislative line of scrimmage in Springfield come fall,” said Thomas Hardy, executive director for university relations.

“I want to assure you that we will continue to work hard to make the case that it is not in the state’s best interest to risk its most precious resource — our highly accomplished faculty and staff at one of the world’s best institutions, the University of Illinois,” Hogan said in an email message to faculty, staff and students Friday.

HB 512 offered three options to current employees who pay into the State Universities Retirement System:

• remain enrolled in the current benefit plan offered to those hired before Jan. 1, 2011, but with employee contributions increased from 8 percent of gross wages to 15.31 percent, an amount that could be modified every three years

• select the plan now offered to employees hired after Jan. 1, 2011, which has lower contributions and reduced benefits

• set up a defined contribution self-managed plan.

The changes proposed by the bill would have become effective July 1, 2012.

A petition opposing pension changes, with more than 1,000 pages and 6,234 signatures, was emailed to all Illinois lawmakers May 25. The petition, signed by employees and supporters from state universities, was organized by the Academic Professional Advisory Committee.

Some experts have questioned the legality of changes to retirement benefits for current state employees.

A clause in the Illinois Constitution reads: “Membership in any pension or retirement system of the State ... shall be an enforceable contractual relationship, the benefits of which shall not be diminished or impaired.”

“In all probability, the legislation would lead to a complicated and contentious court challenge,” said J. Fred Giertz, professor of economics at Urbana-Champaign, in an online fact sheet prepared by the institute. 

David Merriman, professor of public administration and associate director of the university's Institute of Government and Public Affairs, cautioned faculty and staff about making hasty decisions as the debate continues over pension changes.

"There is no reason for university employees to rush into a decision at this point,” he said. “Wait and see what happens."

sobooth@uic.edu


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