Republicans question funding for bill that would increase minimum firefighter pension annuity
A Democrat-sponsored pension bill that barely passed through committee would raise Illinois' billion-dollar retirement debt amid Republican concerns.
HB5183, sponsored by Rep. Daniel Burke (D-Chicago), would increase the minimum retirement annuity for certain firemen and widows of firefighters to 150 percent of the federal poverty level for a fixed population, up from 125 percent.
“As you understand, those that would currently be getting benefits are what we call older and this population will at some point diminish to zero,” Burke said before Republicans queried the bill.
After Robert Tebbens, spokesman for Chicago Firefighters Union Local 2, explained the benefit of the increased fund, Rep. Grant Wehrli (R-Naperville) questioned the service requirements.
“Can they work there a year, and they or their widows get this in retirement?” Wherli asked.
When told the survivor benefit is based on a pension annuity the member was receiving at the time of death, Wherli wanted to know how the City of Chicago was going to pay for this increase. Tebbens said it would be funded in the same way Chicago pays for “all of our other pension benefits.”
“Which they don’t because your funding level is like at 20 percent,” Wherli replied.
Getting right to the point, Rep. Thomas Morrison (R-Palatine) reminded Burke he was on the committee last year asking for the same fund to be increased.
“It’s been a few years,” Burke said.
“OK, but at one point you did sponsor a bill that’s now law where we took it from 100 up to 125 and now we are going to 150,” Morrison said. “Are we going to continue to see these increases?”
Rather than answer yes, Burke said it is a small population, which will diminish.
“Do we know if these individuals have other sources of income, like Social Security?” Morrison asked, adding there was no asset or means-testing for the legislation.
Burke said firefighters are not subject to Social Security benefits; and for the majority, this was their sole income.
“We had concerns the last time and we still have concerns as Rep. Wherli brought up,” Morrison said. “This fund is already so woefully underfunded, and we continue to add to it.”
For too long, the General Assembly has not made the tough decisions, Morrison concluded, which is now jeopardizing public safety as recently seen in the Harvey Police Department having to downsize due to finances.
Rep. Mark Batinick (R-Plainfield) wanted to know exactly how small the population was that would receive increased benefits.
“Somewhere around 400,” Burke said.
Asked what the fiscal impact would be, Burke did not have an answer.
“I am shocked and stunned that (this) affects 400 people ... (and) we do (not know) what the amount is,” Batinick said.
Batinick then answered his own question after Burke told him it was a $3,000-a-year increase individually.
“So, it is $120,000 on an annual basis," Batinick said.
After Burke again attempted to relieve GOP concerns saying the population is decreasing with death, Rep. Sheri Jesiel (R-Winthrop Harbor) wanted to know if the benefit was subject to the simple or compound cost of living adjustment.
“Will their benefits increase over their lifetime?” Jesiel asked.
Burke said it would not.
“It would be helpful if you had some actuarial projections because there is a variety of ages,” Jesiel said. “It could be a 50- or 60-year-old widow that lives another 25 years, and that adds up.”
Though all Republican committee members voted against the bill, HB5183 advanced 8-6 and will move to the House floor for debate.