SPRINGFIELD — State lawmakers on Wednesday advanced reform legislation aimed at thwarting lucrative pension abuses by some labor leaders.
Inspired by disclosures in Tribune/WGN-TV investigations, a key provision aims to end the practice of labor officials double-dipping by collecting city and union pensions simultaneously. In addition, the legislation seeks to tamp down the ability of labor leaders to base their public pensions on union salaries.
The measure also would put in place stricter fraud provisions to require workers employed at public pension systems to report potential wrongdoing to top officials or prosecutors.
First focused on a handful of Chicago-area pension systems, the latest version has been expanded to include pension systems covering Chicago and downstate teachers, laborers and public universities. The proposal likely will be tweaked to address some concerns raised by police and firefighters.
House Republican leader Tom Cross of Oswego won 9-0 approval of the reform plan in the House Personnel and Pensions Committee, sending the measure to the full House.
Senate Republican leader Christine Radogno of Lemont said cracking down on the "egregious pension abuses" is necessary because they are costly to taxpayers. But she said stopping those abuses "cannot take the place of a comprehensive public employee" pension overhaul.
Cross is working on that issue too. He wants to change the pension system to allow current state workers to keep the retirement benefits they have built up but choose from three options for future years. Workers could keep the same retirement benefits if they pay more, take smaller benefits without paying more or get into a 401(k)-style retirement plan.
That push was largely why an estimated 2,000 union workers rallied Wednesday at the Capitol, even though Cross said it's not likely to come up until November at the earliest.
The sign-waving, noon-hour crowd roared so loudly that the voices could be heard on the House and Senate floors. They took special aim at Cross' proposal, calling it an attack on public pensions. And they wasted no time blaming wealthy captains of industry for trying to squeeze the working men and women.
"The economy works fine for the rich but not so well for the rest of us," said Michael Carrigan, Illinois AFL-CIO president. "We are sending one loud, strong message to the politicians that now's the time for them to defend the middle class."
Cross' broader pension proposal is contentious because it goes against a widely held view that state pensions cannot be reduced once they are in place for each worker, but the state's pension debt of tens of billions of dollars has spurred efforts to search for legal avenues to reduce benefits anyway.