How short-term gains trumped Illinois pension funding

SPRINGFIELD - Seven years ago, the cost of Illinois teachers' and employees' retirements was rising, squeezing how much lawmakers and then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich could spend on more popular programs.

Even though the state's pension systems already faced a $38.6 billion deficit, Democrats chose to skimp on mandatory yearly pension payments to free up some cash short-term.

The result was a so-called pension holiday lawmakers created in 2005 to allow themselves to avoid investing about $2.3 billion over two years.

Illinois' pension systems are now $83 billion in the red - a number that's more than twice the state's annual operating budget - and the 2005 pension holiday was just one way lawmakers have put off planning for pension judgment day.

"I'm very sorry I ever voted for that," said state Rep. Elaine Nekritz, a Northbrook Democrat and one of at least nine suburban Democrats still in the legislature who voted for the pension holiday.

Now, Nekritz is a pension policy expert and among those asked by Gov. Pat Quinn to sit on his pension reform committee and try to find a solution. Quinn is expected to release a proposal next week outlining options to get the state's steadily rising pension costs under control.

History shows it could be difficult for state leaders to reach a solution - or series of solutions - because many of the fixes could be controversial, be painful for retirees and take years to make an impact.

"We got ourselves in trouble after all these years for trying to placate and please people," said House Republican Leader Tom Cross of Oswego. "And this is what happened."

The pension holiday alone didn't cause the state's retirement cost problems. But it was a dramatic example of how the state came to be so far behind, perhaps eventually endangering the retirement stability of today's working teachers if nothing is done.

It didn't come without resistance.

"You're breaking into our children's piggy banks, stealing from kids and schools and the disabled of tomorrow," then-state Sen. Dan Cronin, an Elmhurst Republican, argued on the Senate floor at the time. "You think you can get away with it because the public doesn't understand."

Now, as the state's pension problem has come further to the forefront of Illinois politics and government - often becoming a key campaign talking point for both parties - more people do understand.

The pension funds have about 43.3 percent of the money they need to cover projected payouts to everyone enrolled. The funds have plenty of money to pay out pensions to retirees for the near future, especially as the state continues to contribute. But most actuaries agree the pension systems should aim for a funding level of 90 percent.

When the state embarked on its pension holiday in 2005, funding hovered around 60 percent.

The most recent study on the health of the funds from the bipartisan Illinois Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability reports that about 44 percent of the underfunding problem stems from lawmakers and governors shorting what they paid into the systems over decades. About 22 percent comes from poor investment returns. Notably, the stock market crash a few years ago caused significant damage.

And about 9 percent came from increases in benefits over the years, including a benefit bump for many retirees in the late 1990s, according to the agency's analysis. Other smaller factors make up the rest.

That perfect storm of pension problems wasn't created by state employees and teachers, union leaders argue, so trying to fix it by cutting back on their retirement benefits would be unfair.

After all, teachers haven't missed payments toward their own retirements. They contribute 9.4 percent of their own salaries, though some school districts help.

"Solving it strictly on their backs would not be fair or appropriate," said Illinois Education Association spokesman Charlie McBarron.

Not paying enough into retirement plans for employees is a trend that far predates the dramatic 2005 decision to short the payments.

The Illinois pension systems were facing deficits in 1995 when state lawmakers, including then-House Speaker Lee Daniels of Elmhurst, created a plan to get the retirement funds into shape by 2045.

The proposal they approved in 1995 is still law today. It sets out how much the state should contribute to the retirement systems - a number that has grown slightly each year since and will continue to rise.

Now, the scheduled payment has increased to nearly $5.8 billion for the budget lawmakers are debating now, and as that number grows, there's less money available for other things. For comparison, that $5.8 billion is just slightly above what the state is on pace to spend this fiscal year for the Department of Human Services, the agency that takes care of the state's poor and disabled.

Last year, the state fully paid into the pension systems what the law called for - more than $5.1 billion.

But even when officials pay what Illinois law says they're supposed to, the debt in the pension systems continues to grow. The law wouldn't have the state paying down the Illinois pension deficit until around 2030, when lawmakers are scheduled to have to pay in more than $10.5 billion for the year, according to last month's pension report.

Now, lawmakers are weighing a number of options to cope with the problem. Senate President John Cullerton, a Chicago Democrat, has talked about changing the law that sets how much the state has to pay each year. If lawmakers shoot for an 80 percent funding goal - not 90 percent - their yearly costs could go down.

Also being discussed is having working teachers and employees pay more into the pension systems and cutting back their benefits - maybe including for current retirees. Those options could saddle teachers and others with costly solutions to a problem they largely didn't cause.

It's an idea that was raised this month by Teachers' Retirement System Executive Director Dick Ingram, who argued benefits must be cut or else the pension funds teachers count on for their retirements could go under by 2029.

Cutting benefits almost certainly would trigger lawsuits that could prevent any cuts for years - or permanently.

Even if lawmakers and Quinn change somehow what they will have to pay into the pension systems in the future, taking a huge burden off their yearly budgets, the $83 billion in debt will remain.

And if they choose to put less money per year into the system - much like the now-maligned pension holiday plan - that number could continue to grow.

Madigan: Pension boosts should require more votes

Tom Cross
Article Comments
Guidelines: Keep it civil and on topic; no profanity, vulgarity, slurs or personal attacks. People who harass others or joke about tragedies will be blocked. If a comment violates these standards or our terms of service, click the "flag" link in the lower-right corner of the comment box. To find our more, read our FAQ.