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Illinois Lawmakers Scramble to Digest Pension Bill

By KERRY LESTER Associated Press
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SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) - Fresh off a holiday weekend, Illinois lawmakers scrambled Monday upon returning to Springfield to digest details of a complex plan to solve the state’s $100 billion pension crisis just a day before an expected vote.

A growing chorus of conservatives made statements in opposition to the proposal they say is being rushed through. A draft of the 325-page legislation was distributed Sunday and Monday.

Legislative leaders say the proposal, announced last week, would save an estimated $160 billion over 30 years and aims to close the enormous shortfall in the state’s five pension systems by 2044. The pension shortfall, considered the nation’s worst, developed after lawmakers short-changed state retirement systems for years.

While some legislators were intent on studying the proposal as early as possible, other members told The Associated Press they hadn’t read more than a summary of the legislation, and didn’t plan to do so until Tuesday.

“I haven’t even looked at the paperwork,” Democratic state Rep. Linda Chapa La Via of Aurora, said.

“I think everyone would like more time,” she said, but in lieu of that, “give us enough evidence to review it.”

Republican state Rep. Tom Cross of Oswego said he’s waiting to hear from the state’s pension systems about the deal’s possible impact.

“This is going to be the biggest vote most legislators make in their career,” he said. “You’ve got one shot at this and you want to do it right.”

Legislative leaders have spent recent days drumming up support for the plan through conference calls and meetings with individual members. At the same time, Illinois unions spent Monday flooding the offices of lawmakers as they work to oppose the measure. Labor groups say it’s unfair to retirees and believe that some parts are unconstitutional.

To accomplish the savings, the proposal would push back the retirement age for workers age 45 and under on a sliding scale. The annual 3 percent cost-of-living increases for retirees would be replaced with smaller annual adjustments for the highest earners. Some workers would have the option of freezing their pension and starting a 401(k)-style defined contribution plan.

Language to prevent “pension abuses” is also part of the plan, as nongovernment employees couldn’t participate and new hires wouldn’t be able to bank sick or vacation time to boost pensions.

Members of a bipartisan conference committee on pensions will meet Tuesday morning and are expected to sign a report approving the deal. Both chambers could bring the measure up for a vote the same day.

Some members, including Democratic state Rep. Greg Harris, said they were comfortable voting for the plan, even with a short turnaround.

“These concepts have been talked about for a long time,” Harris said, acknowledging that there was “natural fear or concern of is the best possible solution.”

Only one of the three GOP candidates for governor supports the agreement. State Sen. Bill Brady of Bloomington, a pension committee member, said it was a difficult decision.

U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk, the state’s highest ranking Republican, said Monday the General Assembly should reject the bill “that neither lawmakers nor the voters have had the time to read.”

© Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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