Morthland: Pensions -- solutions, not excuses

Posted Online: Oct. 02, 2012, 10:33 am
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By Rich Morthland
Illinois' people and employees have been lied to, abused, and neglected for decades by this state's ruling class. The poster child of this travesty is public employee pensions. It is time for solutions instead of excuses, answers instead of misdirection, and leadership instead of malfeasance. Let's briefly examine the situation.

The five state pension systems have an unfunded liability estimated to be $83 billion or more. While I am glad that we have faithfully made our full pension payments during my first term, the costs continue to grow.

For FY 2013, our total pension bill is $7.4 billion when we tally both the annual payment and debt service on old pension bonds. This is a $1 billion increase in pension contributions in just one year, at a time when the state is already behind on bills and being forced to cut essential services.

Without changes to the pension systems, these costs are on target to swallow the budget. If we don't solve this problem soon, our state can forget about education, health care, infrastructure, or public safety. Eventually, Illinois will be making pension payments alone.

I believe that some of our answers to the pension crisis can come from following the lead of other states that have been successful, like Rhode Island.

Charging current employees more is a possible first step. If we were to also revamp the annual compounded COLAs (cost of living adjustments), we could reach a point where the savings were enough that the systems could survive and the state could afford the pension payments.

I also believe that Illinois should implement a pension benefit package for new employees that would not be solely a defined benefit plan. A smaller defined benefit package with a 401(k) style defined contribution plan would allow employees to share in the rewards and risks of their retirement accounts, like private sector employees generally do.

In my short time in the Illinois House, I have supported multiple pension reforms. HB 3813, which I co-sponsored, prevents Chicago public employees from calculating state pensions on the basis of huge salaries for brief periods of employment in unions.

I co-sponsored a bill that would end pensions for new General Assembly members. I voted to close the loophole that allowed pension double-dipping for individuals who worked as teachers for as little as one day! Also, I voted to require a super-majority whenever the Illinois General Assembly tries to enhance pension benefits. While we need to do more, the partial sampling of measures I have supported shows a solid start.

Illinois deserves to have a strong future. Public employees deserve to have stable pension funds. If we work together, these shared aims are within our reach. However, if we bury our heads in the sand and pretend that these problems will resolve themselves, we face a future of further credit downgrades and ultimate financial collapse.

Other states, potential employers, and posterity are watching. As I mentioned in the open paragraph, the days of wishing away this issue have passed.

Rich Morthland, R-Cordova, represents Illinois House District 71.


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