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posted: 12/30/2012 5:00 AM

Editorial: Pension crisis: The particular abuse of the taxpaper

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The Daily Herald Editorial Board

For the past several days, we've tried to talk dispassionately as we've offered advice about the public pension crisis Illinois has yet to solve.

In trying to be a voice of reason, we've made it a point to focus on solutions, not scapegoats. We're aiming for results after all, so our priority has been a constructive tone designed to encourage the vested interests and political adversaries to work together to get something done. No helpful purpose to be served, we have thought, in treading old ground and assigning blame.

But in the spirit of transparency, understand this: Inside, we are seething.

The current crisis, the refusal by legislative leadership to resolve it, and the head-in-the-sand obstructionism by some union officials -- all of this is an outrage.

Unforgivable incompetence, spinelessness, and greedy self-interest all wrapped into one. It is, in short, an example beyond any other of the lethal hold special interests have on our broken government.

See? Seething.

What brings this emotion out of us today is the topic we scheduled: What role should taxpayers play in solving the pension crisis?

What role should taxpayers play? If you're talking about should, they should play NO role. Taxpayers had no role in creating this crisis (other than failing to throw out of office the incompetents who did create it). Why should they shoulder a burden in resolving it?

Why should private sector retirees with little disposable income be asked to pay more in property tax bills to ensure that public sector employees who retired years earlier than they did live off pensions that pay far more? Why should even current private sector employees be faced with this prospect?

It's not fair.

Nor, to be clear, is it fair that thousands of rank-and-file teachers and state employees will have to shoulder a burden in the resolution of this crisis. They made their payments. They kept their promises. But they too were hoodwinked by a political process that valued expediency and personal gain over functionality. Ultimately, they were handed a set of promises that all the promise makers who were doing the math knew could not be kept, and then, our leaders piled on by failing for years to meet their obligations to the pension system, turning to excessive borrowing when they could no longer look at themselves in the mirror.

But taxpayers in particular will get little out of whatever solution emerges. A financially more stable government? Let's hope. But beyond that, only a higher tax bill. For that inequity, they are justified in their outrage and we share it. Lawmakers, union leaders and anyone interested in the long-term health, fairness and viability of a public pension system for teachers and other state employees need to consider it as well.

Fair or not, however, taxpayers undoubtedly will have to pay more in whatever reform ultimately is enacted. Fair or not, that scenario is almost certain to happen. In reforming the system, it is the obligation of all our legislators, and the obligation of all the vested interests to minimize whatever that added burden will be.

The unions will talk about promises. And they'll talk about the value of teaching and other public sector jobs. And we don't for a second diminish the validity of that talk. But this isn't a question of whether education and teachers are valued. They are. It's a question about what the state and the tax base can afford.

As for promises, for years, the taxpayers received promises too. For years, they were promised that the pension program was self-sustaining, built primarily around a blend of employee, state and employer contributions.

In all the negotiations that must come in the week ahead -- or if it must come to that, the weeks that follow in the new legislature -- that promise of self-sustainability needs to be protected too.

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