Why I pushed the pension bill

kwameBy STATE SEN. KWAME RAOUL (D-13)

A legislator’s test of courage is not the 90 percent of votes that are easy, but the 10 percent that are not. The solvency of our pension funds, our declining bond rating, the quality of public education, essential state services and yes, the promises Illinois has made to its public employees, were all at stake when the legislature voted on pension reform last week. It was perhaps the toughest vote many of us had taken; I know it was no easy choice for me.

Senate Bill 1 wasn’t the plan I wanted to introduce. For more than two years, I vigorously supported proposals based on contract modification principles — models, like the union-backed Senate Bill 2404, that I believed had a good chance of surviving a constitutional challenge in court and thus providing immediate budgetary relief. While SB 2404 passed the Senate, it was never called for a vote in the House. The result was a stalemate that threatened the stability of the state.

At that point, I was asked to chair the conference committee on pension reform, and I had to make a choice. I could continue to stand by my preferred solution. Or I could start again from square one to build a compromise that could pass both chambers, generate significant savings and treat public employees as fairly as possible. My decision — and that of my fellow conferees — was to step back from our entrenched positions and lay everything on the table. This determination resulted in a workable compromise despite the politically toxic environment in which we labored.

Illinois’ fiscal crisis is not merely a pension crisis, and it would be wrong to force state workers and retirees to right this ship alone. Yet the certain consequences of inaction jeopardized the financial security of the public employee far more than the compromise plan’s carefully crafted changes to benefits.

While pension reform was signed into law here, our neighbor Detroit was in bankruptcy court, and its retirees were learning that the city can curtail their benefits to pay its debts. Illinois is taking a different path: difficult but deliberate reform, designed to reduce annual increases in benefits rather than the pensions themselves, force the state to meet its obligations and protect retirees, older workers and those with the most modest pensions.

I understand the anger felt by those who feel they are being penalized for a crisis they did not create. I apologize on behalf of the governors and the legislators of the past who were not forthright with you about Illinois’ structural deficit — the widening gap between what we brought in and what it state services cost. Instead of confronting this reality, they met needs by skipping pension payments.

My commitment to systemic reforms, such as a progressive income tax and alternative sources of revenue, has long been clear. I look forward to working on fair, commonsense solutions to the fiscal problems that persist so that necessary sacrifices are truly shared and do not curtail services for the vulnerable or opportunities for the young.