By James B. Kelleher
SPRINGFIELD, Illinois (Reuters) - Several thousand Illinois state workers protesting proposed cuts in government pension and benefit plans heckled Democratic Governor Pat Quinn at a state fair speech on Wednesday.
The protesters packed a lawn where Quinn was giving the annual Governor's Day speech, with their pro-union jeers echoing through the fairgrounds as dozens of state troopers quietly stood guard.
Quinn, who has ordered state lawmakers back to Springfield on Friday to consider changes to the pension system, stood his ground and repeated his call to overhaul a retirement system critics say is no longer affordable.
"There may be some in our audience who want to keep that system going," Quinn said as a small plane circled overhead, trailing a banner that read: "Gov Quinn: Unfair to Workers."
"I'm here to reform that system and I think the people of Illinois are with me. We're going to band together in the best tradition of Abraham Lincoln's democracy and make the will of the people the law of the land," Quinn said over shouts from protesters.
Darren Williams, a 33-year-old correctional officer at a state prison in southeastern Illinois, shouted, "I pay $600 a month into my pension and you're stealing it!" as Quinn left the stage after brief remarks.
"He's got the public on board thinking that we're getting this free pension," Williams later said. "That's not the case ... We have to stand our ground."
The state's unfunded liability for its five pension systems -- for state employees, the legislature, judges, universities, and teachers outside of the Chicago Public Schools -- stands at $83 billion and is growing by $12.6 million a day, Quinn says.
The overall funded ratio of the pensions is only 43 percent, the lowest of any of the 50 states.
On Friday, the special legislative session will convene to consider one possible, partial solution. But few people except Quinn hold out hope of any substantive action with leaders of both parties cautious before the November 6 elections.
In April, Quinn proposed a pension fix that he said would save taxpayers up to $85 billion over 30 years and result in a fully funded system by 2042.
The plan called for higher employee contributions, lower cost-of-living adjustments and a phased-in retirement age of 67 in exchange for state-subsidized healthcare at retirement.
That set off protests from unions, which on Wednesday boiled over at the state fair on what was supposed to be a day of Democratic Party unity. Unions have been among the party's staunchest backers for decades.
But hundreds of members of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees on Wednesday leafleted fairgoers.
Tymeco Taylor, 51, an investigator for the state department of labor, cooled herself in the 90-degree heat with a fan-sized sign that read: "Governor Quinn: Respect Illinois Workers."
Lynette Roach, a 46-year-old single mother of five, said she makes $42,000 a year working at a state-run residential home for the mentally disabled in Dixon, Illinois.
"They claim Illinois is broke and they blame it on us," Roach said. "But no one's talking about the hundreds of millions given to corporations. State employees are made out to be the villains. We're made out to be greedy, overpaid, underworked - the cause of the problem. But that's just not the case."
(Additional reporting by Karen Pierog in Chicago.; Editing by Peter Bohan)