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posted: 1/9/2013 8:57 AM

Editorial: Don't lose momentum for compromise on pension reform

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The Daily Herald Editorial Board

So close. And we'll take heart in that, rather than disillusionment.

It would have been important progress for all Illinois taxpayers, as well as teachers and state employees, if lawmakers could have reached a fair and sustainable deal on comprehensive pension reform this week. That they failed is cause for disappointment but not dismay.

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What's crucial now is that Springfield not surrender the significant momentum built up in the past two months toward a far-reaching solution to a math problem that threatens eventually to destroy the state's credit standing and consume the bulk of its spending. As the 97th General Assembly ended, it was clear that lawmakers had a sense of urgency on pension reform and recognized its key components. A proposal introduced in the House offered great promise, and state representatives seemed to appreciate its key strengths. For the time being, let's concede their nervousness about tackling such imposing legislation under the pressure of a short deadline. But let's not release a scintilla of the urgency that produced a plan for workable compromise and that now has the space in which to produce the compromise itself.

To be sure, there is value in that space, but it must be used wisely. It is hard, for example, to imagine anything lawmakers could have done on pension reform that would be worse than nothing, but Gov. Patrick Quinn and some House members seemed to find it in an 11th-hour plan that would have created an eight-member commission assigned to produce an all-or-nothing strategy to be presented before the legislature likely in late spring.

Can anyone say "fiscal cliff?" Wow. There's a model for government leadership worth emulating at the state level.

No, urgency and brinkmanship are not the same thing. The governor is right to point out that we are piling $17 million of debt on the state's credit card every day that goes by without a solution for the now-$96 billion due the pension system. So, we need action that can begin diminishing that pile at the earliest possible opportunity, but we need reasoned action.

Meaningful pension reform must address the cost-of-living juggernaut. It needs to address the issue of control, reflected in the debate over the proposed shift of pension obligations from the state to local entities. It needs to address mandated payments of pension obligations. It needs to address a payment plan for the state's pension debt, as well as employee contributions and retirement age.

And a framework exists for doing all these things. Now lawmakers of the 98th General Assembly, veterans and newcomers alike, must put the needs of the state ahead of any special interest and constituent groups to create a public pension system that is affordable, sustainable and equitable when compared to benefits afforded the taxpayers in private enterprise who pay them.

Late in the struggle for a pension compromise last year, labor interests proposed a pension summit during which all constituencies could air concerns and contribute ideas to a final solution. In the space afforded by the restart of the legislative clock, that is an excellent idea, and rather than deputizing a non-elected brinkmanship commission, the governor should convene such a meeting as soon as is feasible.

Constituencies participating need to enter the discussion with the understanding that the prime goal is a stable system that best serves all interests, not a plan that protects or advances any one interest over another's.

With that understanding and the recognition evident in the lawmakers who provided the momentum toward compromise this week, we can have a solution to the pension crisis and we can have it in a time frame that will protect the state and its taxpayers. That time frame is not the end of May; it is now. Let's not allow the start of a new General Assembly to slow our progress.

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