The governor is bringing the issue of reducing government workers’ pensions to the public. Gov. Pat Quinn says lawmakers won’t consider the matter urgent unless the public does. “This is not going to be solved just by the people in Springfield. The people of Illinois are the heart and soul of our government, it’s ‘We the People,’ and many times, citizens are ahead of legislators when it comes to demanding reform. We need to make sure those citizens get the facts they need about an important issue,” he said at a news conference Sunday in Chicago.
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The administration has set up a website, www.ThisIsMyIllinois.com, which explains the issue. The gist of it is that long-neglected pension funds now demand such large contributions from taxpayers each year that everything else is getting squeezed out. For example, in 2008, pension payments consumed 6 percent of the state budget; in the current year, pensions will consume 16 percent of the budget.
The governor acknowledges that the key players in Springfield – himself, legislative leaders and public employee unions – all do understand the problem, but they disagree on the solution. Quinn is sticking with the plan he introduced in April: Raising the retirement age for most job titles, requiring greater contributions by employees, limiting cost-of-living adjustments, and requiring government bodies such as school boards and university trustees to be on the hook for the pensions they award. In exchange, the state would be bound to commit the actuarially determined dollar amount to pensions each year.
Requiring governments other than the state to bear the normal costs of their employees’ pensions is controversial, because school districts Downstate and in the Chicago suburbs do not pay for their employees’ pension costs now, while taxpayers in Chicago already do, so this would be a cost shift that Downstate and suburban lawmakers generally oppose, even if it’s phased in over 12 years.
The state’s problem is an unfunded pension liability of $96 billion, which the governor says costs taxpayers $17 million a day. This figure went up from an unfunded liability of $83 million when the Teachers Retirement System recently lowered is expected rate of return from 8.5 percent to 8 percent. A coalition of unions notes that this is a problem in the first place not because of anything public workers have done wrong, but because over several decades, politicians did not commit the necessary funds to pension programs to meet the pension promises they made.