The proposed amendment to the Illinois Constitution now goes on the November ballot following the Senate's 51-2 vote. The House previously approved the measure, sponsored by Speaker Michael Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton, both Chicago Democrats.
The ballot question will ask voters whether a three-fifths vote by state lawmakers, city councils and school districts should be required to increase government employee pension benefits. The three-fifths threshold is a higher bar than the simple majority required at most levels of government, including pension boards that also would be covered under the plan.
The action comes as the state faces a yawning gap in public pension funding and follows Tribune reports that have exposed how public officials and union members have padded pensions with lucrative sweeteners.
The measure also potentially serves as an attempt to channel voter anger over burgeoning costs of public pensions.
If approved by voters, the amendment would require a two-thirds vote for lawmakers to override a governor's veto or accept a governor's proposed changes on a rewrite of pension increase legislation. Currently, it takes a three-fifths vote to override an outright veto and only a majority to accept a governor's changes.
Lawmakers are not expected to put any more proposed constitutional amendments on the ballot because the Legislature is adjourned until May 8 — past the May 6 deadline of six months before the Nov. 6 election.
Among the casualties are a proposal backed by Democratic Attorney General Lisa Madigan to strengthen the state's crime victim bill of rights and a plan to combine the state offices of comptroller and treasurer. Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka and Treasurer Dan Rutherford, both Republicans, supported combining their offices.
Likewise, voters will not get to weigh in on Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn's proposed amendment to allow people to amend the state constitution through citizen initiatives that could make state ethics standards stricter.
In other action Thursday, House Minority Leader Tom Cross said his Republican troops are prepared to put up half of the 60 House votes needed to pass key parts of Quinn's proposed pension overhaul.
Cross, of Oswego, listed one exception to Quinn's plan: a proposal of shifting to local governments some of the state's expenses for the pensions of public school teachers outside of Chicago. Overall, however, Cross praised Quinn's proposed pension changes that range from reducing cost-of-living increases to increasing employee contributions.
"We have 30 solid 'yes' votes ready to get this done," said Cross, who also has pushed his own version of pension reform. "It's not our idea, but that's OK."
The Cross proposal would give employees the options of cutting benefits and paying in the same, keeping the same benefits and contributing more, or joining a program similar to a 401(k) investment plan.
Speaker Madigan and Cross have also teamed up on a measure to cut the state's costs for covering insurance for retired state and university workers. The proposal is pending in the House.
Illinois Senate cuts scholarship program
By Ray Long and Alissa Groeninger
The Illinois Senate on Thursday overwhelmingly approved the elimination of a century-old legislative scholarship program that has come under federal investigation and long been abused by politicians who passed out the tuition waivers to relatives and children of cronies and campaign contributors.
The 43-5 vote marked a milestone at the Capitol. For years, the Senate had refused to ban the program under both Democratic and Republican control. The bill now heads to the House, where Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, supports it.
The tide turned Tuesday when Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago, got behind the proposal. Cullerton acknowledged the majority of the General Assembly has favored abolishing the program. Cullerton also faced political pressure from Senate Republican leader Christine Radogno, of Lemont, and Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn, both of whom have pushed to end the program.
All 24 Senate Republicans stopped awarding the scholarships because of the history of abuse. Quinn derided the tuition waivers as "political scholarships" that should be forbidden.
Sen. Kirk Dillard, R-Hinsdale, argued the program had become a "dinosaur" that should be ended. But Sen. Kimberly Lightford, D-Maywood, went after Quinn, calling it a "travesty for the governor to take scholarships away."
Lightford maintained there had been only a small number of legislators whose "mishaps" reflected poorly on the program. She argued now is not the time to cut scholarships because lawmakers have shortchanged education for elementary and high school students, as well as college assistance for needy students.
The scholarship program has just one requirement: The recipient must live in the legislator's district. But time and again, reporters have discovered that recipients lived elsewhere. The Tribune found that former Rep. Robert Molaro, for example, had given $94,000 worth of tuition waivers to four children of a friend and longtime political supporter. The children did not live in Molaro's Southwest Side district, according to their driver's licenses and documents submitted to their universities.
After the Tribune report, a federal grand jury subpoenaed documents related to the Molaro scholarships.
The scholarship issue became a flash point in a March primary. Sen. Annazette Collins, D-Chicago, lost to a candidate backed by Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White, who maintained Collins improperly distributed several scholarships outside of her district.