From Illinois Public Radio - News Local/State -

Universities Agree to Slowly Pick Up Pensions

Southern Illinois University President Glen Poshard and University of Illinois President Robert Easter

Southern Illinois University President Glen Poshard (l) and University of Illinois President Robert Easter (m) testify during a legislative hearing on May 16, 2013 in Springfield. (Amanda Vinicky/IPR)

Illinois universities and community colleges have signed on to a deal that would have them pick up the cost of their employees' retirement benefits. 

The state covers the employers' share of retirement benefits for Illinois' public schools, colleges and universities. House Speaker Mike Madigan is insistent the state stop.

Talks are ongoing about how that could work for school districts - critics say shifting the cost will lead to higher property taxes. But the community colleges and public universities have agreed to pay.

After meeting with House Speaker Michael Madigan, several higher education leaders said they would pay half of 1 percent of retirement costs each year starting fiscal year 2015.

"We're willing to do whatever it takes because this issue is the single greatest issue threatening our people over the long haul," said Southern Illinois University President Glenn Poshard.

The plan is part of lawmakers' ongoing efforts to reduce how much the state is spending on pensions.

Illinois has cut its spending on universities for years, and even more reductions are expected next year. Gov. Pat Quinn's proposed budget would cut higher education by five percent. 

University presidents say in exchange for agreeing to take on the pension costs, they hope to see smaller cuts to their budgets.

University of Illinois President Robert Easter said he is losing faculty because of uncertainty over what the state will do about workers' retirement plans.

"I think there's a reality that you come down to grips with," Easter said. "Their options are pretty simple. Either they reduce our appropriation. And that money then gets used to pay those costs.  Or we assume those costs and hopefully they will be able to sustain an appropriation that's relatively consistent with what they've done in the past."

No official action was taken during Thiursday's hearing.

The schools issue isn't in either of two pending pension bills.

Madigan said he expects lawmakers to address it before adjournment. He added that more discussion is set for next week, including if the same deal will apply to school districts.