By Benjamin Yount Illinois Statehouse News
SPRINGFIELD – It is looking more likely that lawmakers will change pension benefits for new police officers and firefighters across Illinois. But it is also looking less likely that there will be agreement when that vote comes.
On Wednesday the architect of the latest plan to scale back retirement plans for to-be-hired cops and firemen, State Rep. Kevin McCarthy, D-Orland Park, told a legislative panel that he expects to have a final plan by next week. But he admits not everyone will be happy.
"We do plan on, hopefully, getting this all ironed out so that the second week of [the fall veto session] we can pass the bill through both chambers. But…there are some things that are still up in the air," said McCarthy.
Namely, police and firefighter unions are upset with the plan to increase the retirement age from 50 to 57, require 30 years on the job, cap benefit payments for survivors, and impose a lower cost of living adjustment than the unions have asked for.
Supporters, most vocally local mayors, contend that without the changes many cities will have to make tough choices between retirement payouts and current city services. The mayors hope to be able to cash in on some future savings in the next few years. The pension changes would only apply to new firefighters and police officers, but local leaders would be able to bank on some immediate savings.
But the unions that represent police officers and firefighters in Illinois maintain that a different pension "reform" could save those cities just as much, or more.
Pat Devaney with the Associated Firefighters of Illinois told McCarthy's panel that there was a deal almost in place. And he thinks lawmakers should talk a little more before acting.
"Our current position as we sit here today…is we have a [plan] that will save taxpayers 50% for new employees, up to 10% immediately. In exchange for benefit reductions…we're asking municipalities to follow what [has been the law] for decades," said Devaney.
That caveat would force cities to make their contributions to police and fire pension plans. If a municipality did not, Devaney wants a carve out in state law to force the payments.
McCarthy's plan would allow, not require, the state to step in if a city had fallen behind the payment schedule after five years.
Lawmakers have indicated that they are willing to act, but admit the decision may be tough. State Rep. Elaine Nekrtiz, D-Des Plaines, said the legislature is going to have to earn its pay.
"It's really going to be up to us to make a final decision," she said.
The General Assembly last spring took similar action to trim back state funded pensions for teachers, university employees, state workers, judges, and future lawmakers. The police and fire pension plans are primarily paid for by local governments.
Legislators are expected to leave the Capitol by noon on Thursday, but are scheduled for three more days of veto session after Thanksgiving.