Nekritz: Time to do the right thing over the easy thing

By Elaine Nekritz
Posted5/12/2013 5:00 AM
  • Elaine Nekritz

    Elaine Nekritz

I want to begin by thanking the Daily Herald and Reboot Illinois for the opportunity to appear at their pension forum recently. The organizers presented well-crafted questions that helped to show those in attendance and watching online just how challenging this issue is, and I hope it helped further both the debate and understanding of the seriousness of our state's pension problem.

A week and a half ago, the Illinois House voted to support Senate Bill 1, which contains the framework for comprehensive reform of our pension systems that I crafted with a bipartisan group of legislators. This was a historic, critically important step in righting our fiscal ship.

The challenge with any reform package is meeting a delicate, difficult balance: preserving the hard-earned rights to a secure retirement for thousands of state workers and ensuring the state can make its pension payments and those to other equally important priorities: schools, health care and social services. What we have laid out in SB 1 strikes that balance well.

There is undoubtedly pain for workers in the legislation. It slows the growth of pension benefits through cost-of-living adjustment increase caps, asks workers to pay more toward their retirement and has younger workers wait longer to retire.

A new funding schedule will ensure we provide the pension systems the money they need over 30 years to meet our promises, and a rock-solid guarantee will say that if we veer from the schedule, we can be taken to court to pay for it.

This bill is historic in two key ways. It's historic because of the dramatic nature of the legislation itself. Yet it is also historic because we in the House are sending a very clear message: We are putting necessity ahead of political expediency, and doing the right thing over the easy thing.

We have taken a lot of steps to address our fiscal crisis. But we cannot ignore this problem as we seek to right our fiscal ship.

We raised the income tax. We have made very real, very painful cuts to every aspect of state government, with deeper ones expected next year. Yet the pension debt grows, meaning we have to pay more and more to address it and less and less to essential services and programs.

We cannot stay on this path, and that is why SB 1 is so important. It will save us more than $1 billion in our immediate pension payment, cut about $30 billion off our massive unfunded debt of nearly $100 billion and, over the next 30 years, reduce more than $150 billion off what we pay for pensions.

Think of all of the good we can do with billions of dollars, multiplying their benefit year after year.

SB 1 is now in the Senate. We will hear talk of other solutions and questions about whether this legislation is constitutional. Remember this: Any solution we approve that takes the tough steps to really address the problem almost certainly will be challenged in court.

The Supreme Court will decide if the legislature's answer is justified to address an unprecedented, monumental problem. I am more encouraged than ever that the legislature recognizes this difficult problem requires a difficult solution, but one that will prove over the long run both to be right and to provide the certainty that everyone wants.

As I stated on the House floor during debate on SB 1, it is time to do the right thing, the responsible thing, to protect the investments made by workers and allow our state to better invest in its future.

I would urge the Senate to agree with the House that Senate Bill 1 does that and is the best approach to move Illinois forward by voting for it this month.

• Illinois Rep. Elaine Nekritz is a Democrat from Northbrook.

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