Ill. Senator: Pension reform “has to get done,” vote today

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by Laura Hettiger / News 4

Associated Press

Posted on May 9, 2013 at 9:41 AM

Updated Thursday, May 9 at 9:41 AM

The financial situation is so dire in Illinois that many refer to the Land of Lincoln as the “Deadbeat State.” Caught in the middle of the mess in Springfield are the state’s million of public school students and all state workers’ pensions.

Today, the Senate could take a large step toward fixing the pension problem—that is if a bill strongly supporting public education passes in the Senate.

The Senate Executive Committee voted 10-5 Wednesday to send the proposal to the Senate floor.

“We need to significantly reduce the pension problem,” said Senator Andy Manar.

The politician from Bunker Hill, Ill., is one of the co-sponsors of Senate Bill 2024. It is a piece of legislation that, in his terms, is less risky than a bill that cleared the House last week. In SB 2024, all savings in this plan would go directly to public education.

Manar’s measure was written as an alternative to last week’s bill that passed in the state House of Representatives.

The measure gives workers and retirees a choice of benefit packages. For example, workers who want to receive 3 percent cost-of-living increases compounded annually wouldn’t get health insurance.

Some unions—including teacher unions—threatened to sue over the constitutionality of that bill.

“If the House’s version is passed, it is probably challenged in the Illinois Supreme Court and nothing changes for the next couple years,” said Dr. Chad Allison, the Superintendent of the Litchfield School District. 

Currently, Illinois has the lowest credit rating in the country. Public education is the most expensive core service the state offers. However, lawmakers continue to take money away from schools as they deliberate the pension crisis.

“If there can be savings in Illinois, it would all go to schools,” Manar said in a phone interview.

News 4 spoke with superintendents and school officials in Litchfield, O’Fallon and Alton about the impact this bill would have on their local districts.

All the educators agreed if this does not pass the Senate floor, they have no idea what the next step would be in fixing the education budget.

Chris Norman, the Director of Financial Services in Alton, said this is probably the last option for getting anything settled before the start of the 2013-14 school year in August. According to Norman, the state has cheated Alton schools out of $2,100,000 over the last two years.

Less than 40 miles from Alton, school in O’Fallon District 90 have been hit even harder.

“Illinois shorted us $2,300,000 in the last three years,” Superintendent Dr. Todd Koehl said in a phone interview. “It is pretty clear that [if the state does not pass this] we will only get 80 percent of what’s promised” to O’Fallon District 90 for the upcoming school year.

To deal with the years of shortcomings, Koehl had to reduce his staff 10 percent by cutting 40 positions. The district also cut all sports and extracurricular activities.

Koehl admits his doubt in Illinois politicians. However, he said this is the closest the House and the Senate has gotten to passing something that could fix the problem.

Sen. Manar said this bill is one of the main reasons he ran in November.

“You run for office in Illinois now so you can actually get things done,” Manar said.

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