Town hall meeting addresses Illinois pension issues

Susan Du

GLENVIEW, Ill. – State Rep. Daniel Biss (D-Evanston) held a pension town hall Monday to address constituents about two pension reform bills he introduced in mid-April to the Illinois General Assembly.

The bills aim to adopt a cash balance pension plan and to create an optional benefit buyout program.

The standing-room-only town hall, held at the Glenview Police Station, 2500 E. Lake Ave., was heavily attended by seniors and retirees. After Biss introduced his two proposed bills and summarized the state’s outstanding pension problems, including an $85 million unfunded liability, he accepted questions from members of the audience regarding their concerns.

“It’s really easy to view this issue as one side versus another side, and I get that,” Biss said, urging town hall attendees to approach pension discussion with patience. “The reality here is that every single person, whether they are an employee of government or a recipient of services of government, needs the public sector to work efficiently and to work in a reliable and functional manner. And this conversation is about making the public sector in the state of Illinois functional.”

A cash balance plan is a mixture of the public sector’s traditional defined benefit plan, which guarantees employees benefits at the risk of employers, and the private sector’s defined contribution plan, in which the employee assumes most of the risk.

The benefit buyout program would give public employees the option of withdrawing from their pension accounts prior to retirement at the cost of future benefits if they decide it is more advantageous to do so.

Citizen questions at the town hall ranged from those specific to Biss’ two proposed bills to general comments related to the state’s overall pension crisis. Retired Chicago teacher and Glenview resident Marc Kravets asked how Biss’ bills might affect retirees.

“We talked a lot about the actives, those people who are still in the system,” Kravets said. “We haven’t talked much about the retirees, those already getting their pension. What changes are possibly in store for them since a lot of them have been getting their benefits for years right now?”

Biss replied that although the bills generally wouldn’t affect retirees, they might result in cost of living adjustments for those already collecting their pensions.

“I can’t promise that will happen, but I think that’s the most that retirees could conceivably have done to them,” he added.

Though frustrations over the state’s severely underfunded pension system ran high at Monday’s meeting, several people in attendance said they appreciated Biss’ willingness to tackle the issue by proposing reform legislation and holding town halls to involve constituents.

John Laesch of Northern Illinois Jobs with Justice said he attended the town hall primarily to urge Biss to support a progressive tax, and although he did not receive the guarantee he was looking for from Biss on acting on tax reform, he was pleased with the way the state representative handled the town hall.

“We’ve tried to have conversations with other state representatives and state senators, and they’ve all ignored it and they’re ignoring their constituents. So he deserves a lot of credit for his public forum,” Laesch said. “He needs a bigger room next time.”

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