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Article posted: 12/29/2012 8:00 AM

The numbers behind the upcoming state pension debate

By Mike Riopell

SPRINGFIELD -- Lawmakers plan to return to Springfield on Wednesday to perhaps try to tackle everything from legalizing gay marriage to solving the state's deepest budget problem.

The latter -- coping with Illinois' skyrocketing annual retirement payments -- could be at the front of the line. How do lawmakers save themselves billions of dollars per year while still providing teachers and state workers with fair pensions?

Complicated by political forces, perceptions of unfairness and an Illinois Constitution that seems to prohibit reducing workers' benefits, solving the state pension is like the hardest math problem in the textbook -- the word problem nightmares are made of.

Lawmakers know their pensions systems are facing at least $96 billion in debt. So here's a look at some of the numbers you might see in the coming weeks' debates and why they matter.

$6.1 billion to $6.7 billion

That's how much state lawmakers have to pay in their new budget for the retirements of state workers, teachers, judges, university employees and themselves.

Why does that number hurt? In their current budget, that number was $5.2 billion, and they're going to have to find more money somewhere.

$1.6 billion

That's what lawmakers had to pay toward pensions just 10 years ago, in the 2003 budget. So it's easy to see how that rapid escalation eats into funds available for other state programs.

Five times

To be sure, $6.1 billion for pensions is a lot of money.

In fact, it's five times the $1.2 billion needed to run the entire Illinois prison system for a year.

And it's more than the $5.8 billion the state is set to spend in its human services budget this year, the money that pays for care of the poor and disabled.

2 percent

Employee unions and some lawmakers have agreed that teachers and state workers could pitch in 2 percent more of their salaries toward retirement. Teachers already contribute 9.4 percent.

The move could give the state $350 million more per year, union officials said.

But the agreement on the math stops there.

Many lawmakers want to cut retirees' annual pension benefit increases to save money -- insisting the move must be done to make any pension changes worthwhile. But union bosses have signaled they'd sue over that change, leaving the prospects for compromise perhaps bleak.

Jan. 9

That's the day the new General Assembly is sworn in -- with a huge class of around three dozen new lawmakers -- and all legislation resets.

It's not a fatal deadline. The new class can pass new legislation too. But observers note that the momentum and pressure of a deadline could spur action. And if the deadline passes, another push for pension changes might not come until May 31, lawmakers' regular budget deadline.

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