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Pension double dipping could end soon

November 29, 2011

By Benjamin Yount
Illinois Statehouse News

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — Illinois will not retrieve the millions of dollars being paid to retired union leaders who are collecting two pensions for one public job.

But lawmakers are close to ending the double dipping for dozens more.

The House Executive Committee unanimously approved a plan Nov. 28 that will stop public workers who are also union leaders from collecting a public pension and a union pension.

The legislation is expected to be voted Nov. 29 during a one-day legislative session. If it passes the House, the legislation then will head to Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn’s desk for his consideration.

Some union leaders have exploited a loophole in a 1991 law in which they start as public employees where they earn a public pension, backed by the taxpayers, and then move onto full-time union jobs where they earn another pension backed by union members. These employees have added the years they worked for the union to their years as a public employee, thereby boosting their public pension payouts. Meanwhile, they continue to earn a union pension.

Often, these so-called double dippers worked for the City of Chicago.

Even though double dipping is not illegal, lawmakers say it is not right.

House GOP Leader Tom Cross, R-Oswego, who is spearheading legislation to end double dipping, calls his proposal common sense.

You would only be entitled to one benefit,” Cross said Nov. 28. “(These leaders) would have to make a choice with respect to which pensions you are willing to take.”

Cross said he does not know how many people would be affected by the law, or how many are collecting two pensions for the same job.

Bob Molaro, a former Democratic state representative and current union lobbyist, estimated that as many as 13 current union leaders would have to make a choice.

He told Cross Nov. 28 that “20 or 30 people have already retired” with two pensions. Molaro said he wondered if Cross’ legislation would force retirement systems statewide to “go after” those people.

Are you looking … to go after people who have already retired?” Molaro asked.

Cross, facetiously, told Molaro that is not the intention of the proposed law.

We wouldn’t want any of the people who are retired not to collect their two pensions,” Cross said.

Most of the unions that would feel the impact of the plan, those representing Chicago’s police and fire departments, as well as City of Chicago workers, are staying quiet about the changes.

Chicago’s police and firefighters’ unions do not support or oppose Cross’ legislation.

Illinois’ two largest teachers’ unions, however, do oppose the plan. Neither the Illinois Federation of Teachers (IFT) nor the Illinois Education Association spoke to lawmakers at hearings Nov. 28, but the unions are on the record as being against Cross’ plan.

The teachers’ unions are unhappy, in part, because Cross’ legislation would also close a loophole exploited by teachers’ union leaders who taught for as little as a day and then qualified for a public pension.

I don’t know if you’re angry, frustrated, dismayed, appalled. It’s all of the above,” Cross said. “A guy can work as a substitute teacher for a day and then become a full-fledged member of (the teachers’ pension) for all of the time he worked for the Illinois Federation of Teachers? That’s insane.”

Cross was referring to Steve Preckwinkle, a lobbyist for IFT. Preckwinkle could earn a $108,000-a-year public pension based on his $245,000-a-year union salary because of his one day working as a substitute teacher.

But according to the same 1991 law used by other union leaders, his one day as a substitute teacher qualified him for the same teachers’ pension that someone who spent 25 years in a classroom would receive.

The average teacher in Illinois will earn closer to $50,000 a year from their pension.

Dave Comerford, a spokesman for the IFT, said the union believes Cross’ plan violates Illinois’ constitutional guarantee on pensions.

But Comerford said the union thinks eliminating the one-day substitute teaching loophole is “significant and fair.”

But the IFT is backing pension reforms in another piece of legislation that passed the Senate during the veto session, but is stalled in the House. That legislation is similar to Cross’ plan, but is not as aggressive as the GOP leader’s in closing the double dipping loopholes.

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