By JEFFREY BISHKU-AYKUL
Assistant to the Editor
Amid Illinois’ deepening budget woes, state Sen. Kwame Raoul (D-13) has been chosen to chair a newly-formed conference committee on pensions.
The Illinois General Assembly voted to create the committee last Wednesday. The group will begin meeting this Thursday to seek a way to lessen the burden of pensions on the state budget. The growing cost of state pension payouts, estimated at $17 million a day, led Moody’s Investors Service to give Illinois its worst ever credit rating earlier this month.
The conference committee, which cannot enact legislation or policy, includes five House and five Senate members, six of them Democrats and four, Republicans. Head member Raoul has also chaired the Senate’s Pension and Investments Committee.
In a Friday phone call with the Herald, Raoul attributed his appointment to the committee to his previous experience with pension politics and ability to reach a compromise on difficult issues.
“Right now, we’ve been at kind of a stalemate between a couple of views on how to do things and the desire is to — because this is such a serious problem — come up with a solution that’s a real, sustainable solution, but that is a compromise of positions taken by different factions in [the General Assembly and by stakeholders],” Raoul said.
Raoul also called his district “diverse, with regards to this issue and with regards to any issue.”
“I’ve got a lot of public employees living within my district, I’ve got a lot of people involved with various civic organizations, business organizations that collate a perspective different from that which many unions or individual public employees may have. And we have to balance those interests,” Raoul said.
The formation of Raoul’s committee comes on the heels of a recent July 9 deadline for pension reform legislation set by Gov. Quinn.
But Raoul called Quinn’s deadline “just something that one individual said.” He added that it was “unrealistic” and that the purpose of the conference committee is “to get something done, not to satisfy just public perceptions.”
“When we’re getting going here at the end of June, to say that we have a July 9 deadline, that’s a bit irresponsible, given that in order to really make certain that we have a solution that navigates us to solvency with regards to our retirement funds and relieves the burden on the year-to-year budget, we need to have whatever proposal that comes out of these negotiations carefully evaluated by actuaries to make certain that we’re not doing something that we have to revisit,” Raoul said.
Raoul added that it was important for lawmakers to pass constitutional legislation. In May, critics argued that a plan that passed in the House — which would have involved cutting pension benefits — was unconstitutional.
They cited Article 13, Section 5 of the Illinois Constitution, which declares that “membership in any pension or retirement system of the State … shall be an enforceable contractual relationship, the benefits of which shall not be diminished or impaired.”