40% of ex-judges' pensions higher than old salaries
Thousands of former Illinois public employees get more each year in retirement benefits than they were paid when they were actually working, and nowhere is that more pronounced than among the state's former judges.
Nearly 40 percent of the state's 789 retired judges make more money in retirement than when they sat on the bench, according to a Daily Herald analysis of the six statewide pension programs.
In 2015, 311 judges made an average of $25,304 more in retirement than they were paid in their final salaries. All told, those same judges will receive nearly $7.9 million more this year than the combined total of their final salaries.
"That seems like a significant number," said state Rep. Elaine Nekritz, a Northbrook Democrat who drafted a pension reform plan that ultimately was struck down by the Illinois Supreme Court. "This is all part of the problem with the benefits structure in Illinois, especially when it comes to those programs like the judges' and General Assembly's that allow beneficiaries to retire on a higher percentage of their salary."
Because they are eligible to receive 85 percent of their final salary after just 20 years on the bench, judicial pensions are among the most lucrative in Illinois.
Most of the state's public pensions are set at 75 percent of the average of several years' salaries, which significantly lowers the initial pension amount. Most government retirees also have to work up to 40 years to receive the maximum retirement benefit.
Add in the 3 percent compounded cost-of-living increase former judges and most other public-sector retirees get each year and it doesn't take long for pensions to outpace their old salaries.
The analysis of statewide pension systems for judges, legislators, teachers, local government workers, state employees and university employees shows more than 40,000 of nearly 300,000 retirees are making more money today than when they were drawing a paycheck.
Legislators have pension perks similar to judges. This year, 33.5 percent of ex-lawmakers -- 104 of 310 former elected state officials receiving pensions through the General Assembly Retirement System -- will receive pensions higher than their final salaries, according to the analysis.
"Historically, legislators took care of themselves," said state Rep. Daniel Biss, an Evanston Democrat who worked along with Nekritz on the ill-fated pension reforms. "A much more generous pension system for legislators and judges seems crazy and offensive to me, there's no question about that."
Part of the lure of becoming a judge is the retirement benefits, and reducing those perks might reduce the quality of judges, some argue. The current average annual judicial pension is $132,426, according to the analysis.
"Judges can be an easy target for a couple reasons," said Bob Anderson, president of the Illinois Judges Association. "Judges have to be lawyers, and if you're a successful lawyer in private practice you can make a lot of money, so a lot of lawyers took pay cuts to become judges. And if you want high-quality people to do this work, they have to be compensated in a way that's not going to discourage them from applying for these types of jobs."
But such pensions have contributed to the erosion of taxpayers' confidence in government, others contend.
"You're creating a set of incentives that don't have anything to do with (the job) or attract people to the job for the right reasons," said Kent Redfield, an emeritus professor of political science at the University of Illinois at Springfield. "It looks to the average citizen like the insiders are getting a special deal. So that can be bad for public support of the political system as well as something that creates an inequitable fiscal system, even though it is still actuarially sound."
The Illinois Supreme Court, in throwing out a law earlier this year intended to reform state-supported pension systems, cited the state Constitution's ban on any attempts to "diminish" or eliminate retirement benefits of public employees.
"The bedrock principle is a deal's a deal," Anderson said. "When judges signed on, this is what the deal was, and I don't think there's anything fair about saying, 'We made that deal, but now we're going to change that deal.'"
Most statewide pensions are funded by employees contributing a determined percentage of their salaries toward their retirement. In the cases of most judges, it's 11 percent. For most legislators, 11.5 percent. The state also pays into the systems with rates based on annual investment returns and actuarial estimates.
In 2010, changes were made to state-supported pensions that limited future public employees' starting pension amounts. But the effects of those changes won't be seen for decades. It also eliminated the compounding of cost-of-living increases for those state-supported pension systems for any public employee hired after 2010, which is also expected to significantly slow pension growth and save taxpayers in the long run.
But meanwhile, the state owes millions to its pension programs due to years of underfunding.
"Eventually it will be fixed," Nekritz said. "If we stay on the funding schedule, we'll be 90 percent funded by 2045."
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