Explaining the snag in efforts to reach an accord on public employee pension reform, House Speaker Michael Madigan drew the clearest line in the sand yet last week when he declared that nothing will be accomplished until local school districts are required to pay for their own employees' retirement costs.
"We have to eliminate the free lunch for local school districts," Madigan told reporters Wednesday. "That's how we should move forward. If you wish to provide for reform of the pension systems, if you want to have responsibility in developing pensions, then you have to provide that the people who spend the money actually pay the bill."
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Mr. Speaker, here's the flaw in your argument:
The local school districts do not have the responsibility for developing pensions.
We don't know how bluntly or loudly we have to say that until it becomes an essential part of the debate, but a shift in responsibility for paying the pensions cannot be addressed without a similar shift in responsibility for establishing the pension benefits and rules.
Have many local school boards gamed the system to increase pensions for their retirees that the local districts would not have to pay? There is no doubt about that.
But here's the central point: The state sets the rules; the local school district merely plays by them.
The abuses that concern Madigan -- and that, frankly, concern us as well -- could be eliminated merely by changing the pension rules.
For example, the rules could limit pension benefits so that end-of-career raises are more stringently excluded from the equation. Or the rules could be changed to effectively discourage early retirement programs by delaying pension draws until a reasonable age.
The rules could be changed. There are any number of ways they could be changed. And the shenanigans by some local school boards would effectively be stopped.
The rules could be changed. All it would take would be the political courage in Springfield to change them. All that could be done within the current system.
But if you want the system to change, Mr. Speaker, if you want the funding responsibility to shift, then that's only half of the system change that is necessary.
We've all seen what happens when the state is responsible for setting the mandates while the local taxpayers are responsible for paying the bills.
We've seen how eager Springfield is to soothe requests by public labor union lobbyists. Frankly, it's given away the store, providing pension levels that are unsustainable. And that's when Springfield has to pay most of the tab. Imagine how much more of the store would be given away if Springfield was free from any of the cost.
It would be unfair to ask local school districts to pay the pension costs unless local school districts had the power to negotiate their own pension programs.