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GOP lawmaker pitches plan to keep new members out of General Assembly's pension system

Illinois Watchdog.Org

Thursday, January 31, 2019  |  Article  |  By Brett Rowland

Legislature (56) , Pensions (70) McSweeney, David--State House, 52 , Weaver, Chuck -- State Senate, 37
A suburban Republican is trying to gather support for a bill that would prohibit new lawmakers from participating in a state pension system that he says is too expensive for taxpayers.

State Rep. David McSweeney, R-Barrington Hills, introduced House Bill 293, which would make lawmakers elected or appointed after November 2020 ineligible for the General Assembly Retirement System.

"I have voluntarily opted out of the legislative pension system since I became a member of the General Assembly. I think it sends the wrong message to taxpayers to force them to fund legislative pensions when the state can’t pay its own bills,” McSweeney said. “Right now, opting out of the legislative pension system is voluntary. My legislation would eliminate the pension system for new members.”

The General Assembly Retirement System, which serves retired elected officials, is 15 percent funded, the worst funding ratio of the state's five pension systems. The bipartisan Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability projects taxpayers will pay $25.8 million into GARS next year while participating lawmakers will put in $1.2 million, according to the latest report from November 2018.

The General Assembly Retirement System offers more generous benefits than other state pension systems, McSweeney said. Retired lawmakers are able to get up to 85 percent of their salary while Tier 1 teachers are limited to 75 percent. Lawmakers don't have to work as long either. They reach the maximum percentage in 20 years. Tier 1 teachers must work 34 years to get the maximum, McSweeney said.

“Being a state legislator is supposed to be about public service,” he said. “Service should not be about receiving lifetime pension benefits. If we want to end the egregious legislator pensions, we must enact legislation to do it.”

McSweeney's bill was referred to the House Rules Committee and assigned to the Executive Committee. 

Other lawmakers have called for scrapping the General Assembly Retirement System, including state Sen. Tom Cullerton, D-Villa Park. Cullerton doesn't participate in the pension system.

Recent efforts to change the General Assembly Retirement System have failed to gain support. 

State Sen. Chuck Weaver, R-Peoria, introduced a bill in January 2018 that would have put future state lawmakers into a self-managed retirement system, instead of a defined benefit plan as it is now. That measure, Senate Bill 2284, would also have allowed members to opt into a 401(k)-style plan. Weaver’s proposal would have allowed members to contribute as much as they wanted and taxpayers would have matched 7 percent for the accounts. That bill died at the end of the last session. It never got a vote.

McSweeney has filed similar bills in the past, but he said he's optimistic about finding support among Democrats, especially in light of former state Rep. Daniel Burke's pension. Burke, who resigned from his seat before the end of his term after losing re-election in 2018, contributed about $180,000 to his General Assembly Retirement System, but stands to collect millions, the Chicago Sun-Times reported. In 2019 alone, the pension system will pay him $73,000. Burke also has a pension from his years working for the city of Chicago.

Payouts like Burke's provide "additional ammo" for changing the system, McSweeney said. 

"There are so many new Democrats who say they are reformers, this is a chance to prove it," he said. "If [this bill] has a shot, it's this session."