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Article updated: 11/15/2012 7:27 AM

Former attorney general Fahner calls pension mess "unfixable"

By Mike Riopell

SPRINGFIELD -- After years of pushing lawmakers hard to tackle the state's growing retirement debt, a leading business group called the Illinois pension problem "unfixable."

In a memo written by former Illinois Attorney General Ty Fahner, the Commercial Club of Chicago warned that the state's retirement costs have grown so much that it might be impossible for state leaders to get their arms around it -- leading to less money for schools and other programs.

"The pension crisis has grown so severe that it is now unfixable," Fahner wrote.

Despite that, Fahner offered several remedies he says lawmakers must pursue to get the debt under control. And he acknowledged to The Associated Press that the state's more than $90 billion in retirement debt is, indeed, mathematically fixable.

"Let's stop engaging in double speak and let's start focusing on the issues," said state Sen. Michael Noland, an Elgin Democrat.

"Nothing is either impossible or unfixable," Noland said.

Lawmakers are set to return to Springfield later this month, and debate on the issue might begin then. But votes on any proposals aren't expected until early next year.

Some of Fahner's proposed fixes include nixing annual benefit increases for retirees, raising the retirement age for teachers and state workers to 67 and making local school districts pay more for pension costs -- an idea regularly bemoaned by Republicans in particular.

Cutting benefits would lower how much the state owes its retirement funds and therefore could lower how much its yearly payments rise in the long run.

Gov. Pat Quinn is pushing for pension changes before the new class of lawmakers is sworn in Jan. 9.

"We hope the committee will help make the case to every member of the state legislature and to state pension-holders that solving the pension problem is key to assuring that benefits will be there when the stakeholders retire," said Quinn budget spokesman Abdon Pallasch.

čThe Associated Press contributed to this report.

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