State Sen. Don Harmon (D-39th) joined state Rep. Camille Lilly (D-78th), for a July 15 town hall in Oak Park, which was dominated by the state’s ongoing fiscal crisis.
The two lawmakers worked to allay constituents’ concerns surrounding the recently-adjourned spring legislative session, which included passage of Gov. Pat Quinn’s FY 2015 budget, which the governor himself described as “incomplete.” The other dominant topic at the forum was the recent state court ruling that may spell doom for the controversial pension reform legislation approved last year in the General Assembly.
Quinn’s $35.7 billion budget is widely considered to be a politically-expedient stopgap in an election year. While Harmon voted for all but one of the eight separate bills that comprise the FY15 budget, he has openly supported extending the temporary tax increase that his colleagues allowed to expire. Lilly, meanwhile, voted for all eight bills, but also supports an extension. Neither legislator will face serious challenges this November.
“We did pass a balanced budget at the end of the year, which is nothing more than kicking the can down the road,” Harmon said, expressing some disappointment with fellow lawmakers.
With the 2011 temporary rate increase expired, the personal income tax rate will go down from 5 percent to 3.75 percent, while the corporate rate will go down from 7 percent to 5.25 effective Jan. 1, 2015. With no new revenues and no spending cuts, experts estimate that the FY15 budget may add about $2 billion to a backlog of unpaid bills already totaling roughly $4 billion as of June 30, according to the Governor’s Office of Management and Budget.
Lawmakers expect to revisit the income tax rate issue after the November elections.
There was a palpable sense of frustration among the roughly 50 attendees at last week’s forum, taking place at Oak Park Public Library. Many expressed downright anger over the steep budget cuts imposed on human services and education.
Lilly, who sits on the House Appropriations-Human Services Committee, suggested that at least a portion of the Springfield’s cuts boiled down to revenue.
“There is not enough funding in health care, mental health and education in our state,” she said. “It burdens me to have had to go to Springfield the past four years and cut these line items. I had no idea I would have this responsibility.”
Pension reform revisited
Other attendees still felt wounded by last year’s pension reform bill.
One attendee, who’s an Oak Park resident and professor at UIC, wanted to know why a plan that was reportedly endorsed by several state university presidents didn’t pass in the legislature.
“It would have involved members like me contributing more and institutions covering the costs. Why wasn’t that plan considered?” he asked.
In response, Harmon said, “We in the senate did hear your proposal. It’s a really interesting idea. In the end, we passed something that looked a lot like the house’s first proposal. The charm of the house proposal is it saved the system close to $160 billion before some readjustments…The initial senate proposal only saved about $80 or $90 billion.”
Harmon also addressed what he said were several popular misconceptions regarding lawmakers’ handling of pension reform.
One man in the audience said that he wasn’t in favor of people receiving more than one state pension, in reference to the infamous practice of “double-dipping.” Others in attendance expressed outrage at the legislators’ perpetual refusal to pay into the pension fund while managing their own pensions much differently than those of public employees.
“The pensions were as unfunded the day I was born as they are today,” Harmon said, insisting that the pension crisis resulted from irresponsible decisions by previous legislators.
“Nobody wants to hurt people who are counting on their pensions,” he added. “In the 12 years I’ve been in the Senate, we have contributed more than we have been required by law to do. We are all wrestling with the consequences of people who aren’t in this room. For the last decade, we’ve taken this problem very seriously.”
The legislators, he added, “did exactly to our pension systems what we did to everyone else’s. [We] cut our own pay for each of the last five years.”
Lilly, who didn’t vote on the pension reform legislation, added “Senator Harmon has really been setting the pace for the discussion [on pension reform]. I’ve understood his commitment for coming up with the solution.
The pension law will prove especially critical for lawmakers after November’s election, given that its constitutionality is uncertain.
On July 3, the Illinois Supreme Court ruled 6-1 that retired workers’ health care benefits deserve the same constitutional protection as regular pension benefits. The court’s ruling, Harmon warned, signals a very likely unanimous vote by the court to strike down the pension reform law. He said lawmakers would then go back to work on a different reform bill.
Michael Romain is founder and editor of TheVillageFreePress.org