The headline has a dull and ominous ring: "Despite pension reform, deficit will grow."
And it's an important headline and an accurate reflection of the message in a report released Tuesday examining the impact of pension reform passed in Springfield in December.
But anyone who is surprised, alarmed or -- in the possible case of reform opponents eager to say, "I told you so" -- delighted by it hasn't really been paying attention. While the pension reform compromise was gratifying for finally demonstrating a legislative willingness to do something to stem the financial bleeding in Illinois, no realistic observer considered it a solution, either to the state's public pension problems or, especially, its broader spending and deficit problems.
It was a step in the right direction -- an important step, a necessary step, but a limited step. One might even call it a limp. But it was and is progress.
The latest analysis, from the University of Illinois' Institute for Government and Public Affairs, comes on the heels of statements last week by Chicago Civic Federation President Laurence Msall suggesting the pension bill's savings could amount to less than two-thirds of the $1.2 billion supporters originally calculated. And it forecasts that even if pension reform reduces the deficit by a full billion dollars, Illinois will still be $13 billion in the red in just over 10 years, based on the current predictable outlook for spending and revenue.
That is not an acceptable position for the state to find itself in. The pension changes helped keep it from being even worse, and without them, we would not be on the path to eliminate the huge debt that must be resolved if the state's pension system is to be stable and sustainable. But they achieve only so much.
So, the correct spin on the U of I analysis is not that pension reform is inadequate; it's that Illinois' budget woes will continue to require intense focus, attention and creativity. That may be splitting semantic hairs a bit -- for it's surely true that pension reform alone will not save the state budget -- but the distinction is critical in emphasizing that pension reform was, and will continue to be, an integral piece of a broad and diverse approach to budget reform in Illinois.
Responding to the report, state Sen. Daniel Biss, an Evanston Democrat who along with Northbrook Democratic state Rep. Elaine Nekritz developed the original themes that were shaped into the successful pension bill, told The Associated Press, "This is a long-term series of steps and (pension reform) is one step."
One step. Biss added that other steps will have to be taken "on the tax side and other steps on the spending side," and simple mathematics suggests that he's probably right. But practical thinking suggests that before the tax side can be addressed, the public must be convinced that the spending side is under control.
Only then will we begin seeing headlines with a more reassuring tone.