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Article posted: 12/31/2012 5:00 AM

Editorial: Framework exists for pension reform solution; seize it

By

The Illinois House and Senate have tinkered with their original schedule and that tinkering makes us a little nervous about what they may have up their sleeves. But the revised session dates notwithstanding, lawmakers have a window of opportunity in the days ahead to re-establish a pension system for teachers and state employees that will provide secure and fair income in retirement at a price everyone can afford. We urge lawmakers to seize it.

The task facing lawmakers is urgent. With every passing day, the state's pension debt climbs by a factor of millions of dollars. At the end of the 95th General Assembly last May, that debt was estimated at $83 billion. Today the figure is more than $96 billion. We should not rush to a faulty undertaking, but time is a serious factor. And as they return to Springfield this week, lawmakers will have before them a 220-page plan that has been available for study for weeks. Yes, it is an imperfect approach. Practically by definition, a problem with the complexities and diversity of stakeholders of the pension system for Illinois teachers and state employees demands a solution that costs everyone something. Yet this approach is more workable and comprehensive than any suggestion so far, and it has bubbled up from the legislature's rank and file, gathering both Republicans and Democrats among its supporters.

We are normally not keen on taking up potentially controversial matters in lame-duck session, but the urgency of the need for pension reform argues forcefully for action, preferably even before the new legislature is seated Jan. 9. As authors of the House plan Elaine Nekritz, a Northbrook Democrat, and Daniel Biss, an Evanston Democrat who will move from the House into the Senate in the next legislature, point out, delay of this measure does not kill it, nor does it endanger some critical deadline. But it does mean a return to Square One next week with 30 or more new lawmakers to educate on the intricacies of the pension problem and the impact of this solution. Given the history and politics of the Illinois legislature, that also almost certainly means a delay until the end of May for a solution to be approved and who knows when for it to be implemented.

Moreover, almost any solution conceivable -- and certainly any solution that addresses all the shortcomings of the existing pension situation -- is certain to face a constitutional challenge. Action now gets that process in motion. The sooner we can get a ruling, the sooner we can start putting this crisis behind us and address whatever constitutional flaws need to be addressed.

Our editorials over the past week have shown the need for a multipronged pension solution that puts, to echo a popular Springfield phrase these days, skin in the game for every interest, not just in solving the current crisis but also in building and strengthening the pension system going forward. They've also demonstrated that we have on the table a proposal that includes all that skin while also creating a process that is fair to all and sustainable.

Illinois' teachers and its state employees deserve a pension system they can count on and one that satisfactorily rewards their years of commitment. Illinois' taxpayers deserve a system that does not continually sap increasing resources from other pressing needs. Illinois' government needs to move forward on other critical issues -- not least of which is a relentless spending gap to which pensions are but one contributor, albeit a major one.

And, a plan providing all this needs to be put in place as soon as possible to stanch the daily flow of millions of dollars in pension debt.

A plan exists that does this. Lawmakers and other stakeholders have had time to study it, evaluate it and weigh in. Particular proposals may require a tweak here and there, but on the whole, the framework of a solution is in play. Legislative leaders should allow the vote, and then lawmakers should seize an opportunity they may not soon see again.

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