How Illinois' pension deal got done

  • Rep. Elaine Nekritz, a Northbrook Democrat, speaks Tuesday during Illinois House debate over pension cuts. The bill passed both the House and the Senate and Gov. Pat Quinn says he'll sign it.

    Rep. Elaine Nekritz, a Northbrook Democrat, speaks Tuesday during Illinois House debate over pension cuts. The bill passed both the House and the Senate and Gov. Pat Quinn says he'll sign it. Associated Press

  • Illinois Senate President John Cullerton, a Chicago Democrat, reacted as voting began Tuesday on a bill to cut public pensions. Cullerton's backing was a breakthrough in getting 30-24 approval in the state Senate.

    Illinois Senate President John Cullerton, a Chicago Democrat, reacted as voting began Tuesday on a bill to cut public pensions. Cullerton's backing was a breakthrough in getting 30-24 approval in the state Senate. Associated Press

Updated 12/5/2013 5:29 AM

State lawmakers' complicated differences of opinion over what to do about Illinois' $100 billion in pension debt dragged on for years, with new proposals often giving them different reasons to disagree.

But when Democratic and Republican leaders of the state House and Senate struck a deal for the first time the day before Thanksgiving, it was off to the races.


Voting was scheduled for Tuesday, the day after the deadline to get on the ballot for the 2014 elections.

But were there enough votes? No one was sure.

A rejection by lawmakers could have been disastrous for proponents of pension cuts and a big win for teachers and workers who felt the attack on their retirement was unfair.

State Rep. Elaine Nekritz, a Northbrook Democrat, was sought out by two fellow lawmakers the morning of the traditional Thursday feast to help explain the complicated new bill to them.

She'd been working for pension change for years, so she said she didn't mind sacrificing part of Thanksgiving Day to go over the legislation that proposed slowing the growth of teachers' and state workers' pension benefits, raising the retirement age and chipping in more state money every year to pay off the debt sooner.

"Oh well, this is only the most important issue facing the state of Illinois," Nekritz said.

The bill passed on Tuesday, enraging workers and retirees who will bear the burden of the state's savings. Gov. Pat Quinn says he'll sign it soon, and as soon as he does, public employee unions promise to sue.

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But approval was never a sure thing. Legislative leaders bookended the holiday with conference calls for members on Wednesday afternoon and on Friday.

Union leaders organized protests at lawmakers' offices and arranged for a flood of emails and calls, arguing teachers shouldn't have to give up some retirement security because of politicians' financial problems. The Illinois Education Association, a teachers union, declared a "pension emergency day" for Monday.

"You're getting phone calls and emails literally in the thousands," said Sen. Matt Murphy, a Palatine Republican who voted yes. "That was a little rattling, I suspect."

On the other side, billionaire Republican candidate for governor Bruce Rauner of Winnetka was pressuring GOP lawmakers to vote against it for another reason: The savings weren't enough. Rauner's wealth could give him new power in the GOP, so his stance might have helped peel away some votes.

In the end, everyone who supported the compromise had to give up some of their favored ideas, but none compromised as much as Senate President John Cullerton of Chicago and his Democrats. The group accounts for 40 of 59 members in the Illinois Senate, and put 20 of the 30 votes on the proposal Tuesday.


In May, only six Senate Democrats voted for a plan backed by House Speaker Michael Madigan in a 16-42 drubbing. That plan resembled in many ways what was eventually approved Tuesday, so a lot of people had to change their minds.

When Cullerton struck a deal with Madigan and Republicans last week, enough Senate Democrats followed along to push the measure through.

"President Cullerton meticulously negotiated a series of bills as a faithful representative of the caucus he leads," said state Sen. Daniel Biss, an Evanston Democrat and one of the initial six votes.

Cullerton had previously fought to give workers a choice over reduced pension or health care benefits and won the backing of union leaders for the plan.

But top Republicans and Madigan disagreed with that idea. When Cullerton lieutenant Sen. Kwame Raoul of Chicago began negotiating without that choice in mind, the stage was set for at least the possibility of compromise later.

Over the summer and fall, Raoul led a bipartisan committee of 10 lawmakers that included Nekritz, Biss, Murphy, Rep. Darlene Senger of Naperville and Sen. Linda Holmes of Aurora in a quest to find common ground.

They held a few public hearings but talked mostly in private, eventually hitting a point in late summer or early fall when it wasn't clear they could reach agreement.

"For several weeks, we were talking constantly but not really making any progress," Nekritz said.

So, as with many big issues in Springfield from budget talks to the final push to approve same-sex marriage, the legislative leadership took over.

Madigan, Cullerton, House Republican Leader Jim Durkin of Western Springs and Senate Republican Leader Christine Radogno of Lemont began trying to find agreement.

"There's a reason they have that title," Murphy said.

The talks revolved at least in part around a change in the way retirees' pensions would grow. Radogno pushed a plan similar to a previous idea aimed at protecting lower-earning workers from big cuts.

The eventual agreement had roots in legislation filed a year ago Thursday by Nekritz and Biss, who were joined by about 20 other supporters.

Biss was driving home from Springfield after a widely hyped 2012 session day in Springfield that didn't produce any results on pensions. He fielded calls from frustrated colleagues and with Nekritz drafted a plan during election season that year that they'd eventually introduce.

Early in 2013, they found an ally in then-House Republican Leader Tom Cross, who worked with them to tweak their idea, helped pull Republicans on board and, in May, voted for the pension cuts.

The Oswego Republican, who is now running for Illinois treasurer, voted "no" Tuesday.

"Unfortunately, the measure brought before us today fails to deliver real pension reform and does little to ease the burden on taxpayers." Cross said in a statement Tuesday.

That explanation is similar to the argument pushed by Rauner and some other conservatives, who wanted workers put into 401(k)-style plans to save the financially hampered state more money.

Other Republican candidates for governor had varied views. Sen. Bill Brady of Bloomington voted for the plan. Sen. Kirk Dillard of Hinsdale voted against it, and Illinois Treasurer Dan Rutherford of Chenoa opposed it, too.

Supporters of Rauner's view also were lobbying.

"I got some pressure, too," Senger said, though she wouldn't say from whom.

She voted "yes" and saw Tuesday as a make-or-break moment.

"If we don't get this done, it's going to be who knows when," Senger said.

When the large voting scoreboards lit up at the Capitol Tuesday afternoon, the Senate had the bare minimum it needed. The House approved the plan with two votes to spare. Seven fewer House Republicans voted "yes" Tuesday than for the similar plan in May.

"We know how close it came," said Holmes, an Aurora Democrat and union backer. "It is a very tough battle."

Now, lawmakers involved with the years of wrangling have to watch how the Illinois Supreme Court views the new law. The Illinois Constitution says pensions are a contract that can't be "diminished or impaired," and the legislation approved Tuesday contains a preamble meant to be used in the legal challenge.

Soon, though, lawmakers could face their next pensions challenge from local suburbs that have asked for benefit cuts for years as police and firefighter retirement funds take up larger parts of their budgets.

"We're far, far, far from being done," Senger said.

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