Illinois lawmakers are scheduled to debate today a massive overhaul of the state’s pension system.
The measure’s revival was made possible last night by a surprise move from House Speaker Michael Madigan, who calls an overhaul necessary.
Madigan told Illinois Public Radio’s Amanda Vinicky he regrets his role in passing an early retirement package a decade ago that added to the state’s $83 billion unfunded pension liability – and what he wants to do about it now.
Of course I have regrets. One would be the bill that was passed at the end of George Ryan’s time as Governor, where Senator [James] Philip was involved, and it was called “the early out” for state workers. At the same time, we passed this legislation- that we’ve repealed now- that said if you worked 20 years for the state you could have health insurance for the remainder of your life with no premium. The obligation today is to assess the situation today and work cooperatively to solve the problem. That’s where we ought to be.
And you were part of the 1970 constitutional convention… What was the thought process behind including the phrase, “the benefits of which shall not be diminished or impaired” when describing state employees’ retirement benefits?
The language in the constitution was considered by the constitutional convention, and it was debated at length. The delegates to the convention knew the language as drafted, they knew what the intent was, and so it’s pretty clear that the language says “there shall be no diminishment of the benefits.” This is why the bill under consideration today is structured in terms of the contract, where the retiree or the active worker is given an offer...They can accept the offer or they can reject [the offer]. If they accept, then there’s some consideration flowing to them which is a guarantee of access to the state health plan in the future. Ultimately, the question will be decided by the seven people sitting on the Illinois Supreme Court. My expectation is that those seven people, in addition to exercising legal acumen, will take into consideration some practical considerations also.
I know you said the point now is to look ahead, but how much responsibility should you shoulder? I don’t think that House Republican Leader Tom Cross is alone in his statements that said, to you, “Maybe you need to take responsibility, Mr. Speaker, for your actions. For the last 40 years,” Cross said, “you’ve had your fingerprints on the mess we have today.”
You know, when times get tough it’s easy just to point fingers and try to prescribe blame. If there’s fault to be taken, I’ll take my share of the fault. Fine. But let’s knock it off. Let’s get about the business of why the people sent us here, which is to assess the problem and move to solve it. That’s why we’re here. That’s why people are elected. That’s what we should be doing, not engaging in rhetoric.
Would you accept the changes? Would you step down from Tier 1?
From what I know about it, I would not take the option. I would go buy my health insurance somewhere else.
How much of this overhaul does Governor Pat Quinn deserve credit for? Was it spurred by his call to action- for instance, during the budget address- or is this outside of Pat Quinn?
It’s always very helpful for a governor to provide leadership and direction to a legislature. It’s not essential, but, it’s very helpful. And the governor’s position during this session on Medicaid, on state retiree health care and pensions has been very helpful, very instrumental in terms of what we’ve been able to do. Our hope is in the next two days we can also finalize changes in the pension systems.