Illinois Republicans Defend Public Workers in Pension Battles

It was the most important money vote in the Illinois General Assembly in recent memory. The $160 billion bill would rescue the public-employee retirement system and help restore fiscal stability to the U.S. state with the lowest credit rating.

Yet when the votes to reduce workers’ benefits were tallied late in the afternoon of Dec. 3, only 15 House Republicans, about one-third of the caucus, supported the bill. In the Senate, 10 of the 19 party members voted for it.

“You would expect a Republican to be pro-growth, lower taxes, smaller government and a balanced-budget hawk, and yet this pension thing goes counter to what you’d typically think of in the Republican 10 Commandments,” said Doug Whitley, president and chief executive officer of the Illinois Chamber of Commerce. “I think a number of them were looking out for their own skin.”

The dominance of Republicans in rural and exurban Illinois reflects a reshaping of power bases as Democrats cluster in cities, leaving the countryside to their rivals. Twenty years ago, half the 12 largest U.S municipalities had Republican mayors. Next month, none will. Meanwhile, Republicans have increased their share of governorships to 30 from 22 since 2006. The sorting of the U.S. population by politics is creating new alliances.

Gut Check

On Dec. 3, the Republican embrace of fiscal conservatism was put to the test in southern Illinois legislative districts, a 54-county region that is home to the capital, Springfield, and dozens of state facilities whose employees would be directly affected by changes in their pensions.

House Republican Leader Jim Durkin, from the Chicago suburb of Western Springs, said he didn’t expect lawmakers representing the area to vote with him to cut constituents’ benefits.

“I wasn’t going to ask them to walk the plank politically,” he said. “I erased them from the equation. They have a lot of Republican union members down in those districts.”

Thirty-three of those 54 counties south of Interstate 72 lost population in the last census. In some legislative districts in the region, government jobs represent 20 percent of the employment, according to Rob Paral and Associates, a Chicago-based research group than analyzes census data.

“In some of those districts, the state is the major employer,” Durkin said. “That’s part of the problem.”

In the region, 50 of the counties went for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney in the 2012 election.

Veering Right

Illinois isn’t unique in this regard. In fact, counties with higher proportions of local and state government workers as a share of their total workforce skewed toward Romney last year, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data compiled by Bloomberg show.

Among the roughly nine in 10 counties where data was available, local and state workers represented 14.2 percent of workers on average. Romney won 81 percent of the counties above that level.

In Illinois, the pension bill will limit annual cost-of-living allowances and raise the retirement age for some workers. That will produce the bulk of the $160 billion of savings during the next 30 years, according to the plan.

Impossible Vote

To some Republicans, the measure didn’t go far enough. But in southern Illinois, Durkin said, unemployment is “staggering in some of these counties” and that made the bill a nonstarter.

Jason Brown, an economist with the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, said that through decades of change in rural America -- declining manufacturing jobs, less labor-intensive agriculture production and depopulation -- government jobs are a mainstay. They include positions at schools and universities, correctional facilities, transportation departments and parks.

“Government services are like non-tradable goods, because they are specific for that location,” Brown said. “They are not exported.”

That has elevated the importance of the public-worker vote.

“These are jobs that run the economy in these districts,” Whitley said. “Politicians there are extremely sensitive to those unions and don’t want to go against them.”

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