With the clock ticking on the current legislative session in Springfield, Illinois lawmakers are scrambling to find a solution to the state's massive shortfall in the Teachers' Retirement System.
The most hotly debated topic in the Illinois General Assembly on Tuesday was a plan to gradually shift pension liabilities from the state to local school districts, universities and colleges. The proposal is part of Senate Bill 1673, a pension bill backed by House Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago).
An Illinois House committee voted 6-3 to send the proposal to the House before Thursday's adjournment deadline, NBC Chicago reports.
Geneva School Board members briefly discussed the legislation Tuesday. School Board member Tim Moran held up a 2-inch-thick stack of pages that represented the gist of SB1673.
"It’s rather intimidating," Moran said. "(Under this legislation) teacher pension costs shift to the school district, assuming movement in Springfield. Everything’s supposed to happen by Thursday."
House Republican Leader Tom Cross of Oswego slammed Madigan and the proposed shift, calling it a "poison pill" to kill pension legislation. The state should take responsibility for the pension shortfall, Cross said, not teachers, school districts and taxpayers.
"Maybe you, Mr. Speaker, need to take responsibility for your actions," Cross said. "For the last 40 years you have had your fingerprints on the mess we have today."
Madigan defended his position after Cross spoke on the House floor, according to an NBC Chicago report.
"There is a concept in America that we all try to live under, which is called responsibility," Madigan said of the proposed pension shift.
Illinois currently has an $83 billion unfunded pension liability—$44 billion of which is from the TRS. The state has to come up with $5.1 billion for pensions next year, the Associated Press reports.
Local officials have slammed the proposed shift, saying it would be "detrimental" to both and
“If this plan were to pass, it would be detrimental not only for schools in Lemont, but for almost all schools across the state,” . “District 113A and many other school districts have already made dramatic cuts. We simply cannot afford this; it would destroy public education.”
Madonia said it would cost District 113A an estimated $735,000 to take on the state's share of pension liabilities.
In April, , which is equivalent to the salaries and benefits of 11 teachers and represents more than 60 percent of the school’s annual budget for extracurricular activities and athletics.
"Lemont High School is in much better financial condition than most school districts, and this will have dramatic effects on our efforts to educate our students,” District 210 Superintendent Sandra Doebert said. “I can't imagine what districts that are not financially healthy will have to do. I also can't imagine what the state will do when school districts across the state cannot meet their financial responsibilities as a result of this unfunded mandate."
If legislators were to adopt the plan, school districts could begin seeing the effects immediately. Without any new sources for revenue, the burden would likely fall on the taxpayers to maintain the level of education in Lemont, officials said.
"Without a referendum, our hands essentially are tied if we were to seek new revenue," Doebert said. "In the meantime, students will suffer the consequences of the legislators' actions. Students will be the ones who have fewer classes from which they can choose and fewer extra-curricular opportunities to sharpen their skills and explore their talents."
The current legislative session ends Thursday, May 31.