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Illinois lawmakers push for state retirement plan

Published: Sunday, March 30, 2014 12:01 a.m. CDT
Caption
(AP file photo)
Illinois state Sen. Daniel Biss, D-Evanston, speaks with a legislative staffer May 6 at the state Capitol in Springfield. Illinois lawmakers are advancing legislation that would give most private-sector employees access to retirement plans through a government program.

SPRINGFIELD – Opponents of a proposed state retirement savings program for private-sector workers say the Democratic-backed plan would burden small businesses in an already struggling economy.

Similar to a plan pushed by President Barack Obama in his State of the Union address, the proposal sponsored by state Sen. Daniel Biss cleared a Senate committee earlier this month after lengthy debate. Now Biss has until an April 11 deadline for voting bills out of the Senate to gather support for the program, which has failed to gain approval in recent years.

The proposal calls for businesses without retirement plans and that have 10 or more employees to enroll workers in a savings program overseen by the state. Typically, 3 percent of each participant’s paycheck would be pooled into a privately managed investment account overseen by a new state board. Employers would be required to sign up workers, but employees could opt out.

Biss wouldn’t call the plan a part of the populist agenda in an election year but said “it is encouraging that there’s so much discussion about ways to build ladders into the middle class for low-wage workers.”

He said this program would help millions of Illinoisans who don’t have access to employer retirement savings programs.

“I think the increasing discussion about income inequality has left people seeking a mechanism to address that growing problem, but also a mechanism that’s not costly for government or for employers when we’re experiencing still a far too high rate of unemployment,” the Evanston Democrat said.

Democrats who control the Illinois House and Senate are pushing for a minimum wage increase, a graduated or “progressive” income tax that would require more from the wealthy and a tax on millionaires to fund education.

Business groups and Republicans who oppose the plan are asking instead for a study to determine if this plan could work, and they say they would partner to educate workers about saving for retirement.

Kim Clarke Maisch, the Illinois state policy director for the National Federation of Independent Business, said forcing businesses to enroll employees would add to costs and actually hurt low income workers.

“If you can’t pay down your credit card and you can’t afford groceries, and you can’t afford gas for your car, do you really think that forcing them to take 3 percent out of their paycheck makes sense?” Maisch said, adding that the state shouldn’t touch private sector retirement dollars after failing to manage public employee pensions.

But state Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie, a Chicago Democrat, said she doesn’t think the government is running anything in this case. Currie, who’s sponsoring a similar measure in the House, said that if people would rather invest in “beer and Skittles” on the weekend they could.

“I think most members of the workforce would be happy to put $5 away for rainy day,” Currie said.

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The bills are SB2758 and HB4595.

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