The Illinois Senate and House of Representatives both took up pension law changes during the week of March 18-22, but the measures considered still contain serious constitutional flaws and questionable policy proposals
The pension changes were viewed as “test votes” that could help define the final parameters of any reforms that may ultimately be sent to the Governor. I did not support the measures, which use unconstitutional provisions to cut retirement benefits rather than adopt true reforms to the state’s retirement systems.
The Illinois Senate approved a very narrow measure – Senate Bill 1 – that would only impact active teachers outside the city of Chicago. Retired teachers, state employees, university employees, Chicago teachers, General Assembly members and judges were not included in the bill.
Senate Bill 1 is a piecemeal approach to a problem that has over-arching consequences for all Illinoisans. It was approved on a partisan roll call with no Republicans voting for it. It was particularly troubling that the measure cut benefits earned by teachers, but left the General Assembly’s pensions untouched.
A more sweeping proposal – Senate Bill 35 – failed to garner sufficient support in the Senate. That bill reduced benefits that have already been earned by teachers and public employees, something that opponents view as a clear violation of the Illinois Constitution.
The House also approved a pension change that would limit cost-of-living adjustments (COLA) paid to all retirees. Because the measure affects retirement benefits that have already been earned, opponents said it likely would fail the same constitutional test as other measures. The measure also exempts judges from the reductions, although a constitutional law expert had earlier told a Senate Committee that there was no legal reason to exempt judges.
Under House Bill 1165, retired workers would be limited to a cost of living increase of $750 for those who do not receive Social Security benefits and $600 for those covered by Social Security.
One measure that did pass the Senate with strong bipartisan support was Senate Bill 1224, which would end the practice of allowing persons to use unused vacation and sick time to boost their pensions when they retire. The measure, which passed 53-0, would apply only to new hires.
Earlier in the month, the House sent the Senate measures that would increase the retirement age to 67 (House Bill 1166) and cap pensionable income at about $113,000 (House Bill 1154).
It was disappointing that Governor Quinn didn’t bother coming to Springfield during the debate, despite having said he “was put on earth” to solve the pension problem.
Lawmakers spent much of the week in committees reviewing hundreds of bills to meet a March 22 deadline to move them to the Senate.
One critical measure that remained in committee is a much-needed reform of the state’s workers’ compensation laws to assure that a genuine tie between the workplace and the injury exists. Illinois has long been plagued by a system in which employers are forced to cover injuries under the worker’s compensation system, even if the injury had little or nothing to do with the employee’s job
Senate Bill 2307 would establish “causation” standards in Illinois that would be used to determine if an injury was actually caused by work conditions or occurred on the job. The lack of such standards has been cited by businesses as a major reason why Illinois’ workers’ compensation costs are higher than competing states. Even the Illinois Attorney General has issued a report calling for reform, citing the causation issue as a major factor in driving up workers’ compensation costs for the state.
In other action during the week, the Senate passed a number of bills, including:
EPA Reports (SB 33): Allows the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency to require that drinking water quality test data be submitted electronically rather than filing paper copies.
Nursing Home Notices (SB 1197): Requires nursing homes to fully inform prospective residents and their families of their obligations to comply with federal spousal impoverishment disclosure requirements and the potential for denial of Medicaid for failure to comply.
Sexually Violent Offenders (SB 93): Allows for sexually-violent persons to be temporarily housed in a distinct portion of the Chester Mental Health Center. The temporary housing is needed while permanent facilities at Rushville are undergoing renovations to expand capacity. The temporary housing must be closed by June 30, 2015.