(MCT) — One by one, Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan's forces called for test votes on changes that would greatly curtail pension benefits for government workers: eliminating cost-of-living increases, raising retirement ages, asking employees to pay more.
And each time Thursday, House Republicans opted not to push the buttons marked yes, no or present. They simply did not vote.
Leading Democrats painted the exercise as important to eventually building a consensus on how to move forward on the state's $96.8 billion pension shortfall, a way to get cooperation from unions and lawmakers who have balked at less painful measures.
But Republicans decried the process as a "charade" while the pension problem grows worse.
"What are we doing here today?" asked House Republican leader Tom Cross of Oswego. "Illinois politics at its finest. Another day of games. Another day of waiting. Another day of putting off the inevitable on an issue that is not going away."
The piecemeal approach to voting was similar to Madigan's effort this week on concealed-carry legislation. In that case, he had the House take individual votes on places where guns could and could not be carried. The voting record could prove useful for Democrats in the next election, particularly in the suburbs where feelings about gun control are mixed.
Republicans contend Madigan is employing a similar tactic on pensions. As long as the pension mess is unresolved, Republicans will seek to blame Democrats who run state government. By calling for votes on the unpopular reform ideas, Madigan now can respond that Democrats proposed major cuts, but GOP lawmakers would not vote for them.
"The votes today were a political maneuver, and there is no excuse for these actions, which only point to their own failed leadership on the issue," said Rep. Jim Durkin, R-Western Springs.
One proposal called for eliminating all future cost-of-living increases, which currently are 3 percent compounded annually. Another would have halted the yearly increases until the retirement plans reach an 80 percent funding level, a benchmark that's now closer to 40 percent.
A third plan called for raising the retirement age in order to collect full benefits to 67. A fourth required employees to put an extra 5 percent of their paycheck toward their retirement. Current contribution rates range from 7 percent to more than 9 percent.
Most Democrats voted no on the proposals, and none of the plans received more than five votes in favor.
Cross said lawmakers should instead consider a bipartisan plan unveiled by House members this week. Under that proposal, annual cost-of-living increases would apply to only the first $25,000 of pensions, or $20,000 for those who also receive Social Security. Retirement ages would not rise for people 46 and older, but would be gradually increased for those 34 and younger. Employee contributions would rise by 1 percentage point the first year, and another 1 percentage point the second year.
But Rep. Elaine Nekritz, a Northbrook Democrat who days ago was promoting the bill she and Cross put together, said Thursday that the proposal lacks enough support to pass.
Nekritz also carried Madigan's pension measures, saying the process of voting in a reform plan piece by piece may not be perfect, but a new approach was needed after years of stalemate.
"We all need to find something that we're for," Nekritz said. "And each of you has to engage in that process of getting to yes."
The sentiment was echoed by House Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie of Chicago, who said plenty of lawmakers say they are for pension reform, but few are willing to cast a tough vote.
"This is called smoking them out," Currie said. "We have a lot of people who have a lot of rhetoric, and the question is, 'What is it they will vote for?'"
The answer to that question is still unclear, and if Thursday is any indication, it may be far off.
"It just proves we are a long way away from having a pension resolution," said Rep. Lou Lang, D-Skokie.
Tentative union contract
The action unfolded as the state's largest employee union announced a tentative agreement with Gov. Pat Quinn's administration on a three-year contract. The deal marks the end of 15 months of negotiations between Quinn and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 31 — the longest such talks in state history.
Details are under wraps until the 35,000 workers covered by the agreement have a chance to vote on the contract next week.
Quinn had been pushing for a pay freeze as well as requiring workers and retirees to pay more for health care. The union countered with an offer that would include no pay increase during the first year of the contract and "modest" increases to keep up with the cost of living in the following two years.