News Local/State

Rauner Reports ‘Progress’ On Overhaul Of State Pensions

A previous pension law was ruled unconstitutional by the Illinois Supreme Court.

A previous pension law was ruled unconstitutional by the Illinois Supreme Court. Amanda Vinicky/WUIS

An overhaul of the retirement benefits Illinois gives state employees, public school teachers and university workers has been the subject of talks between state leaders in recent months. Governor Bruce Rauner said so Wednesday, but he sounded uncertain as to what will come of it.

Illinois' massive unfunded pension debt has made reducing the state's costs a priority for years. But now there's an extra incentive for lawmakers from Chicago.

The spending plan legislators passed in June calls for giving Chicago Public Schools some $215 million, but only once they pass what Rauner calls "comprehensive pension reform." CPS passed a $6.3 million dollar budget Wednesday that relies on the money coming through.

"Could I sit here today and say 'absolutely, for sure, we're going to get that pension reform agreement worked out in the next few months'? Well I'm going to try my darndest because I can to try to change our pensions," he said. "But you know, who knows?"

Rauner says there is an agreement on what sort of changes would be legal.

"We've agreed on what's constitutional to try to change it. Now it's just getting the political will that I hope the General Assembly will show to pass true, good pension reform," he said.

At the same time, the governor while progress has been made, it hasn't been enough.

When asked if he sees any reason a deal won't go through, he laughed and said "this is Illinois."

The state Supreme Court ruled a previous law cutting pension benefits was unconstitutional.

Rauner and Senate President John Cullerton has previously loosely agreed to a framework known by the legal theory of "consideration." Broadly, it would give public workers a choice: Agree to a lesser pension package or forgo earning retirement benefits on a future pay raises.

Rauner's comments came as his administration warns there's a potential the state's pension costs will soar. That would happen if the Teachers Retirement System, or TRS, lowers its assumptions for how much a return it can expect to make on its investments. Rauner's office says that would devastate the state budget.

The $215 million payment to CPS would be a pickup of part of its pension costs, similar to what Illinois does for every other district.