The Evanston Chamber of Commerce’s annual legislative breakfast on Oct. 18 featured State Senator Daniel Biss, State Senator Heather Steans, Representatives Robyn Gabel and Laura Fine, Cook County Commissioner Larry Suffredin, and U.S. Representative Jan Schakowsky, all introduced by Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl.
Sen. Biss sat in the spotlight, saying that state pension reform was “absolutely in our grasp to achieve this fall veto session.” The veto session started earlier this week.
Two pension reform bills passed this year, he said, but one passed in the Senate and the other in the House. Neither made it through both chambers. The result, he said, was a conference committee established to come up with a third proposal, because the other two were so different they could not be reconciled.
The conference committee, in which Sen. Biss played a key role, according to the other state legislators in attendance, authored a proposal that, they say, will achieve enough to “stabilize the share of our budget that goes into our pension system” at 20 percent of the budget.
Current contributions are 23 percent and rising, said Sen. Biss. Savings are achieved by tying increases in pension payouts to the consumer price index rather than a standard, annual 3 percent, he said.
Rep. Gabel expressed some hesitancy, saying the problem was caused by state legislators in the past and not by the employees, who always put in their share.
She said she would not vote for pension reform unless the State was absolutely required to put in its share every year going forward, the people closest to retirement were not affected at all, and reform protected employees at the lowest income level who “should be able to at least keep up with inflation.”
Pension reform will start at the state level if at all, said Sen. Biss. “We are extremely unlikely to pass a bill that provides relief to municipalities,” he said. But state reform is a necessary prerequisite to municipal reform, he said.
Commissioner Suffredin took the opportunity to praise Cook County, which, he said, has “the best funded public pension fund in the state.”
He offered another word of caution, saying, “One of the concerns I have is that we’re going after and demonizing public employees. Remember, the vast majority don’t have Social Security” – making their pension their primary safety net.
“Don’t take a hatchet to systems that work, and remember that public employees have planned their whole lives” around promised pension benefits, Commissioner Suffredin said.