- Associated Press - Thursday, May 8, 2014

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) - The board of the State Universities Retirement System voted Thursday to accept an interpretation of last year’s state-pension reform law that says the law won’t inadvertently cut university retirees’ pensions.

The unanimous vote in Chicago by the SURS board’s executive committee ends several weeks of concern raised by SURS and Illinois’ public universities that the equivalent of a typo in the law would sharply cut many university pensions. They worried that would add to the incentive that pension reform is already giving many university and community college employees to retire early.

“We’re happy to be able to go this route to help our members,” SURS spokeswoman Beth Spencer said.

University of Illinois spokesman Jan Dennis said the university agrees that Thursday’s vote resolves the problem with the law’s language.

“We are pleased that this has been resolved and hope this provides some assurance to our employees,” he said.

Public universities and community colleges fear they will lose many employees to the pension-reform law, which was passed last year to help the state deal with a $100 billion shortfall in funding state retirement benefits. It cut cost-of-living increases for retirees and capped the amount of earnings that can be applied toward pensions, leading many to consider leaving before the law takes effect on June 1.

The language glitch threatened to push even more out of the door, the schools and SURS said. Lawmakers agree the wording was a mistake.

But last week House Speaker Michael Madigan pointed out to SURS and the schools that other public-employee pension systems in the state have interpreted the new law based on its intent, excluding the mistake. That’s based on a state Supreme Court decision from 1986 that requires that when pension-related law is ambiguous, it “must be liberally construed in favor of the rights of the pensioner.”

Earlier this week, SURS Executive Director William Mabe said he agreed.

At least two pieces of legislation were filed last week to change the language in the law as well. The lawmakers behind the separate pieces of legislation, state Sen. Chapin Rose and state Rep. Chad Hays, have both said they could still push to see them passed.

Spencer said SURS would like that change to be made.

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