SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) – More Illinois government employees are taking the leap into retirement, apparently hoping to lock in their benefits before state officials agree on a plan to cut pensions.

Nearly 4,750 state employees retired in the past fiscal year, the Chicago Tribune reported Monday. That’s almost as many as the prior two years combined.

Roughly the same number of university employees retired, too the highest total in at least five years.

Timothy Blair, executive director of the State Employees’ Retirement System, calls this “our biggest year ever,” aside from times the state has offered incentives to encourage early retirement.

Delores Thomas, 57, is one of the employees who suddenly decided to retire. She was a state child-support enforcement officer, helping families get the money they’re owed. After 34 years with the state, she quit June 8 because of the uncertainty over retirement benefits.

“There’s a lot of talk out there. I said, `Hmmm, I gotta go,”’ she said.

Thomas, who fears she’ll be unable to afford medicine for diabetes and asthma, hopes her decision to leave before pension benefits are reduced will give her a better chance to lock in the retirement deal she has now.

But the strategy may not work. Officials are considering a plan that would pressure retirees to accept lower pension benefits. If they refuse, the retirees would lose their state-funded health insurance.

Illinois’ retirement systems for state workers, university staff, judges, legislators and non-Chicago teachers are roughly $85 billion short of the money they’ll need for pensions in decades to come, a gap largely caused by the state failing to contribute enough money. Closing that gap and keeping up with the growth in pension expenses costs the state billions of dollars each year, leaving less money for other services.

That’s why Gov. Pat Quinn and top legislators want to reduce the amount state government must pay each year. But they’re stymied by a dispute over making non-Chicago school districts take responsibility for the pension costs of their employees. Democrats want to transfer the cost, Republicans don’t.

Lawmakers are scheduled to debate the issue Friday in a special session.

In a conference call Monday, unions criticized state leaders to considering a plan that is “unconstitutional, morally wrong and does next to nothing” to solve Illinois’ money problems.

(© Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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