SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) — Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel brought his clout and high profile to the public pension debate Tuesday by advocating money-saving changes to city retirement plans and — importantly for Gov. Pat Quinn — shining a light on similar troubles at the state level.
The Democratic mayor appeared with little notice before a House committee to lay out a plan to prevent what he said would be a huge tax increase for Chicago residents if nothing is done.
A year into his first mayoral term after holding leadership posts in Congress and President Barack Obama's White House, it didn't matter that Emanuel only testified on his suggestions for Chicago's six pension systems. His appearance, coupled with a pledge to assist Quinn, however tepid, raise awareness the Democratic governor needs.
"In terms of the politics, it could be helpful that everyone is now pulling on the same oar and saying, 'We have to get something done,'" said Rep. Elaine Nekritz, D-Northbrook, chairwoman of the House Personnel and Pensions Committee, which hosted the mayor.
Emanuel is exploring a design that resembles Quinn's approach to closing an $83 billion funding gap in five state-employee pension funds. Emanuel wants to raise the retirement age for Chicago employees such as police officers, street crews and park employees. He would require employees to contribute more to their retirement and halt retirees' annual cost-of-living increases for 10 years.
With no changes, pensions would eat up 22 percent of the city's budget within three years and force a 150 percent property-tax increase, he said.
"Our taxpayers cannot afford to choose between pensions and police officers or pensions and paved streets or pensions and public health," Emanuel said.
Similar funding problems have faced the state for years and similar fixes emerged in a plan last month put forth by Quinn, who had earlier in April leaned good-naturedly on Emanuel's "persuasive ability with legislators" to get support for state financial reforms, including onpensions.
Asked Tuesday about that exchange, Emanuel acknowledged telling Quinn "that I was going to use all my political capital to help see through the necessary and fair reforms and I was ready to work with him."
"Chicago should be a part of this so we can help the economy because Chicago's health, economically, the jobs it creates, is central for the state's own economic future," Emanuel said.
While Chicago and many Illinois cities control how they run their governments, most publicpension programs are governed by state law.
Emanuel met briefly with House Speaker Michael Madigan, whom Nekritz said invited Emanuel to the hearing, and Senate President John Cullerton, according to Madigan spokesman Steve Brown.
"It's always useful to have firsthand opinions from prominent governmental leaders," said Brown, declining to measure the impact of Emanuel's Springfield visit, particularly because legislation has yet to be finalized for either plan.
The reaction to Emanuel's proposal from labor leaders was also similar to the one offered Quinn's. Labor unions resent having to bail out programs victimized by years of underfunding by politicians that Quinn and Emanuel both acknowledge.
The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees said in a statement that Emanuel would decimate retirees' financial security with a 10-year "pause" on cost-of-living increases — an annual income bump that every Social Security beneficiary gets.
And they question whether it's constitutional to reduce pension benefits because they're contractual agreements.
"A guy does 30 years," said Michael Shields, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Chicago Lodge 7. "Twenty-seven years down the road, you can't just change the rules of the game."