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No Pension Reform Passed in Illinois, Local Schools May Feel Impact

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It's official: Finding a fix for Illinois' pension crisis will have to wait. The Illinois General Assembly has ended its lame-duck session without bringing any pension reform measures to a vote on the floor.

New lawmakers will be sworn in Wednesday, and the process will start all over again.

Theoretically, they could get right back to work on a bill to bridge the state's $96 billion in public-employee pension accounts. Presumably, though, they'll face some road blocks - if the difficulties striking a deal before this session ended are anything to go by.

After a bill that had shown promise died in the house Tuesday, Illinois Governor Pat Quinn proposed creating a commission to come up with recommendations, which could then be enacted without the legislature's approval. That proposal failed to make it to the floor for a vote.

We spoke to outgoing lawmaker Rich Morthland, R - 71st District, not long after the House was adjourned for the day. He said the lack of any action is a big problem, because it creates uncertainty for everyone in the state.

"What's going to happen to our bond rating?" he asked. "It's probably going to get pushed down again. What's going to happen to all these poor school districts that have to plan their fiscal year based upon what Springfield does? Oh, that will be left in turmoil again and uncertainty."

"This is a dreadful way to run a state," he said.

This failure to act could have a pretty big impact locally, especially for schools.

Part of the problem here is that, as things stand now, a lot of the money that's being used to prop up the state's pension system has had to come out of other areas of the budget. Education is a big one.

Last year, state funding for school districts in Illinois was prorated to 89 percent. That means for every dollar a district should have received based on the state aid formula - the state only paid out 89 cents.

That adds up.

In the Moline School District's case, it adds up to about a $3 million deficit in the ed fund heading into next year's budget.

That budget is now much more difficult to put together, with district officials not knowing what is going to happen with pension reform.

"The longer they push this back, the more difficult it becomes for school districts to plan,' Dr. David Moyer, Superintendent of the Moline School District, said.

"We have deadlines that we have to meet legally for layoffs, personnel decisions. The board has deadlines they have to meet to approve tentative budgets," he explained.

Since state lawmakers failed to put pension reform measures in place by their deadline, the end of this legislative session, the Moline School District - like districts across Illinois - is in a tough spot to make those kinds of decisions.

Although many lawmakers have expressed confidence that there will be pension reform before the end of the next session, the possibility that it could take another full year is a difficult pill to swallow for school administrators.

"Then the state just gets more and more broke," Moyer said, "I think it's bad for all of us if they don't pass something."

Dr. Moyer insisted no one should have any doubt: Something has to be done.

"Right now you're looking at a house of cards...You're playing with imaginary funding. I mean you can't keep doing that," he said.

Whether a fix for Illinois' pension crisis is in the cards anytime soon - and what that will mean for our local schools if it is - remains unclear.

For now, that's still a game of wait - and worry.

Morthland said, traditionally, things move pretty slowly at the beginning of new legislative sessions, as new bills have to be written and introduced.

But there is a lot of pressure on state lawmakers to pass pension reform, so leaders could push some measure through much faster.

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