SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) – Some Democrats in the Illinois House are having second thoughts about cracking down on pension abuses by union officials, including two lobbyists who qualified for teacher pensions by spending a single day in the classroom.
The lawmakers argued Sunday that reversing benefits after they’ve been earned, even by questionable means, is probably unconstitutional. Just two weeks after supporting legislation to take away those pension benefits, they began moving a new bill that closes several loopholes going forward but has no impact on people who have already taken advantage of them.
House Republicans objected to the new proposal. Senate Democrats said they believe the original measure will pass constitutional muster even though it would take away benefits that have already been awarded.
A Democrat-dominated House pension committee voted 5-3 Sunday for the new measure.
“Our bill would say if they’re in, unfortunately they’re grandfathered in,” said the committee’s chairman, Rep. Kevin McCarthy, D-Orland Park. “No one wants to give any of these guys a break who took advantage of the system, but we have do it constitutionally or else in reality we’re doing nothing.”
A Republican on the pension committee, Rep. Darlene Senger of Naperville, said union officials who exploited pension loopholes acted in “illegal and abusive” ways that do not qualify for constitutional protection. She questioned why Democrats are backing away from the original bill.
“To come in and have all this change makes me very suspicious,” Senger said.
Retirement systems for Illinois teachers, state employees and university staff, already struggling to keep up with their long-term obligations, have been hit with reports of people taking advantage of loopholes to boost the size of their pension checks.
In some cases, public employees have taken leaves to work for their unions but continued to build benefits in government pension systems based on their union pay. In other cases, employees have built up pension credits in both the public and the union retirement funds at the same time.
And in two cases, lobbyists for the Illinois Federation of Teachers served as substitutes for a single day and then were able to have their years of union work counted toward benefits from a teachers’ retirement fund.
Lawmakers approved legislation last month that would bar such maneuvers in the future and take away pension benefits from the handful of people who had already used them.
The new measure approved Sunday by the House committee is different. It would bar the future maneuvers but do nothing to take away pension money that has already been earned.
McCarthy said negotiations on the idea are continuing and an agreement could come as early as Monday.
Senger, however, said Republicans hope Gov. Pat Quinn simply signs the tougher bill that has already been approved, despite any constitutional questions about it.
John Patterson, spokesman for Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago, said the Senate will look at anything the House winds up approving, but their lawyers believe the original bill is sound.
The bills are HB3813, SB1673.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)