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updated: 3/3/2011 7:36 PM

State's long-term pension debt jumps sharply

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  • In this Feb, 8, 2011 photo, Illinois Speaker of the House Michael Madigan, a Chicago Democrat, warns lawmakers of tough decisions that lie ahead and even suggested cutting pension benefits for current state employees, a move generally considered unconstitutional, while on the House floor during session at the Illinois State Capitol in Springfield.

      In this Feb, 8, 2011 photo, Illinois Speaker of the House Michael Madigan, a Chicago Democrat, warns lawmakers of tough decisions that lie ahead and even suggested cutting pension benefits for current state employees, a move generally considered unconstitutional, while on the House floor during session at the Illinois State Capitol in Springfield.
    Associated Press

 
Associated Press

SPRINGFIELD -- The financial hole in Illinois' government pension systems grew even larger last year, the state auditor reported Thursday -- a problem that tends to increase pressure on a state budget already stretched too far.

The long-term gap between what Illinois owes future retirees and the money available to pay them jumped 21 percent under a new measuring system, Auditor General William Holland reported. Even under the old system, the gap grew by 10 percent.

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Illinois government employees, downstate teachers and university staff have been promised $139 billion worth of retirement benefits, but the pension systems have only $63 billion in assets. Eventually, the state will have to come up with money to make up that difference.

As state government devotes more money to government pensions, it leaves less for education, law enforcement, human services and other needs.

Illinois borrowed about $3.7 billion this year to help make the annual contribution to retirement systems. The amount owed in the next budget will top $5.4 billion, the auditor said. That's part of the massive budget deficit haunting Illinois.

State officials are considering ways to keep the pension gap from growing even larger.

Already, the state has reduced the benefits it will offer to future employees. House Speaker Michael Madigan has suggested it might be necessary to cut benefits for current workers, too, but Senate President John Cullerton, a fellow Chicago Democrat, says the Illinois Constitution specifically prohibits that.

Another option would be requiring employees to contribute more to retirement funds, but that is opposed by unions. They point out that workers have always paid their required share while state government has sometimes failed to meet its obligations.

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