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By Anna Lothson
It's no secret that the pension crisis, as it's known to many local and state government officials, has crippled Illinois' budgets.
Debates about who should fund what pension and at what rate have risen to the top of the political agenda. This is one subject state Senator Don Harmon (D-Oak Park) hopes the state legislature can tackle before the November election.
School district pensions in particular have been the hot-button item recently, following House Speaker Mike Madigan's support for shifting pension liability from the state onto local school districts.
"I think it's important to make sure teachers have a secure retirement," Harmon said in a recent phone interview. "I think shifting the costs to the school districts makes a lot of sense."
As long as school districts are taught to be "responsible" with their funding strategies, Harmon said, a reasonable solution could be phased in gradually. Most school districts he and his colleagues have talked with say they could take on the responsibility.
Harmon said the shift could benefit school districts because it would allow them to have more control over pension payments instead of relying on state government. It would also free up funding for other education programs, he added, which have faced statewide cuts in recent years.
"We should align decision-making and responsibility to pay," Harmon said.
That doesn't mean, however, that districts would be entirely on their own. "There is a reasonable argument that there should be some statewide rules on pensions and retirements," he said.
Pension discussions, said Harmon, are strictly related to school districts and universities, and shifting other pension-related costs is not a topic of conversation.
Currently, he said the four legislative leaders and Governor Pat Quinn have been meeting about the topic; he hopes by the return of the fall session there will be a conclusion. Otherwise, it will have to wait until the veto session following the November election.
Bottom line, Harmon reiterated, "It's important teachers have a secure retirement. I think it's important to demonstrate our responsibility to pension reform. We need to do it sensitively. We need to do it responsibly so it doesn't punish people who've given their lives to public education."
Harmon called the spring session "extremely painful," in large part due to the opposition's response.
"I'm still baffled at how many Republicans clamoring for pension reform would get cold feet when they were pressing to do it."
Harmon is hoping a bipartisan solution can be reached; otherwise the supporters will have to "muster the Democratic majority to do the right thing. The General Assembly said we're going to solve the problem and not just kick the can down the road. We have demonstrated a newfound willingness to take on the most difficult problems head on."