Editorial Roundup: Illinois

 
 
Updated 3/2/2021 10:00 AM

Chicago Tribune. February 26, 2021.

Editorial: Former House Speaker Michael Madigan's pension illustrates the broken system

 

A suburban mayor once explained why voters' eyes glaze over when stories of pension debt hit the headlines. It's difficult, he said, to absorb numbers such as '$141 billion in unfunded pension liabilities' and to understand how it affects actual pocketbooks.

The mayor suggested the media give more specific examples of how the system gets strained - the healthy 52-year-old state trooper who can retire with full benefits at such a young age or the township official with a cushy job collecting benefits after just 20 years or the lawmaker who becomes eligible for a pension after only eight years in office.

So today we bring you one of those examples to illustrate how the system is broken:

Former House Speaker Michael Madigan, after 50 years as a member of the Illinois House and a contributor into one of the state's five pension funds, the General Assembly Retirement System, will receive an annual pension of around $85,117, about 85% of his final salary.

In July 2022, his pension will rise to about $148,995 due to padding lawmakers built into the system for themselves over the years. He'll receive a guaranteed 3% raise on his pension each year, no matter what the actual cost of living is.

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During those 50 years in office, Madigan contributed from his own paycheck about $351,000 toward his retirement account. He quickly will start receiving far more than he put in.

That imbalance is made up in part by investment returns in the funds themselves. And it is made up in part by taxpayers in a gigantic, annual pension payment that is part of the state budget, and that has been steadily rising.

But neither investment returns nor the state subsidy have been enough to keep the state's five funds in balance. Their unfunded liabilities, collectively, rose from about $41 billion in 2006 to $144 billion today. Even as the state meets it statutorily required payment into the funds, as it has for almost 10 years, the gap between what's available and what's promised has widened alarmingly.

The state - that's you, taxpayers - is now pumping almost 25 cents of every dollar toward its five pension funds and the money is not steadying them. The fund liabilities are still increasing.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

For example: The General Assembly fund, the one Madigan belongs to, is only about 17% funded. Across all five funds - the pensions for teachers, university workers, state workers, judges and legislators - there's only about 40% of the funding available for the promises made.

This is what we mean when we describe the system as unsustainable. And this is why taxpayer backlash, demonstrated through the rejection of Gov. J.B. Pritzker's graduated tax amendment, has grown. We're onto the pyramid scheme.

State government should be dedicated to putting first in line the most vulnerable: children in foster care, kids and adults with disabilities, families struggling to take care of a loved one, senior citizens, the working poor.

Instead, state government is largely dedicated to propping up a broken retirement system, forcing dollars for the needy to compete with dollars for pensioners. The benefits promised are too expensive. They're more than what taxpayers are willing to prop up, which is why you saw the crash of the Pritzker tax amendment and an exodus of residents tired of being saddled with the state's debts.

House Speaker Emanuel 'Chris' Welch indicated recently he'd like a do-over of that graduated tax amendment, this time dedicating new revenue to the pension system.

But that's more of the same, shoveling more tax revenue to an unsustainable benefits program - and sticking the wealthy with the bill. There's only so much taxation Illinoisans are willing to absorb.

What is needed, and any rational person not afraid of public employee union backlash knows it, is a readjustment of benefits. It's not blasphemy to say so, though Pritzker calls the push for pension reform an 'attack' on state workers.

Maybe he forgets that a Democratic-led House and Senate tried to curb benefits in 2013 by reducing those compounded cost-of-living increases and freezing them for a few years; extending ages slightly so the 52-year-old police office might have to work until 55; and increasing, slightly, the amount pension-eligible workers contributed toward their own retirements. Those benefit changes got a 'yes' vote from many, many Democrats.

That bill was cut down by the Illinois Supreme Court in 2015. And rather than come back with Plan B, the legislature has done nothing more to try to fix the problem.

Instead the only 'solution' to the pension mess we keep hearing about is to keep shoveling more money toward it.

What the politicians don't grasp is that the money isn't enough. With pensions strained throughout local governments too, it will never be enough. Our elected officials have to address pension costs on the back end by curbing benefits they overpromised. And that means amending the constitution's pension clause. The tipping point is here. It's way past time to act.

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Chicago Sun-Times. February 25, 2021.

Editorial: Failing grades and low attendance: More proof we'd better reopen schools

Many young people, frustrated by the inadequacies of remote learning during the pandemic, have likely just given up.

With all that the public has learned about the many shortcomings of remote learning, no one should be surprised by the latest data showing just how severely Chicago schoolchildren are struggling during the pandemic.

The alarming news from the Chicago Public Schools, as reported on Thursday by Nader Issa of the Sun-Times, is that kids are failing classes more and attending school less, especially high school students.

Elementary students are receiving 'F' grades at double the rate of last year. Black and Latino students are receiving significantly more 'F' grades. High school attendance has declined by 4.3%, and elementary school attendance is down by 0.9%.

Add this to the growing mountain of evidence that reopening schools must be a priority, locally and nationally. The only question is how, not if.

If we fail to do so, the educational and economic impact could be enormous, as a new analysis by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco warns. Thousands more students could drop out, the study concludes, and this would mean fewer high school graduates enrolling in college, and down the line, lower lifetime earnings and lower job productivity among the young people affected by closures today.

The closing of high schools during the pandemic is even being blamed for a surge in carjackings in Chicago and across the country. 'With many schools closed for in-person education, school-aged youths with free time - some as young as 12-15 - are committing a large portion of the increase in carjackings,' the Police Executive Research Forum asserts.

Back to school - real school

As it stands, we can understand why failing grades are up and attendance is down. Many young people, frustrated by the strictures and inadequacies of remote learning, have likely just given up.

'We're tired of staring at screens for hours,' Dayana Martinez, an eight-grader at a CPS school, said Wednesday at a City Hall protest to demand improvements to the district's remote learning policies. 'We are tired of not having access to someone to talk to, like a counselor, all while trying to balance our grades with a fear of failing and feeling like we are unsure of what our future looks like.'

The best remedy, as Chicago Public Schools CEO Janice Jackson continues to argue, is to reopen schools so kids are not stuck staring at computer screens and have easier access to counselors.

Thousands of CPS elementary school students are due to return to classrooms two days a week beginning March 1, joining preschoolers and some special needs students who already have returned.

But a majority of CPS families have chosen, at least for now, to continue with remote learning. That's why so much is at stake with a safe, smooth reopening. Parents want to see for themselves that it's possible for their children to return to school safely - real school - where their educational and social needs can best be met.

The sooner CPS and the Chicago Teachers Union can agree on how to safely reopen high schools, the better. The challenges undoubtedly will be greater, since high schools have more students and those students move from class to class. We're betting, though, that both sides learned lessons from the unnecessarily acrimonious negotiations over reopening elementary schools. Chicago's young people cannot afford a repeat of those mistakes.

'We have children experiencing anxiety, depression, weight gain and even more serious symptoms that signal remote learning is not for everyone,' Carol Deely, a mother of a CPS junior, told the School Board on Wednesday.

Too much screen time?

Research has shown that too much screen time can create difficulties for children of all ages. Language skills may fail to improve. Sleep is disrupted. Exercise is limited. All the same, we're inclined to agree with Jackson that instructional time should not be reduced. It can't possibly be good, in the long run, for kids to lose time with their teachers.

But there are ways to make virtual learning less taxing, such as having students do more hands-on projects on their own, that CPS ought to promote.

In the end, as we have said time and again, CPS should give all parents the option to send their children back to school. That's where the real work - making up for all the learning lost during the pandemic - will take place.

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Champaign News-Gazette. February 28, 2021.

Editorial: State budget a product of creative writing

Credibility is another casualty of Illinois' staggering financial problems.

A couple weeks ago, Gov. J.B. Pritzker presented his proposed $41.6 billion budget for the 2021-22 fiscal year that he characterized as spare but balanced.

The budget may be spared by Pritzker's standards, but it's certainly not balanced on anything other than paper. In keeping with Illinois' new tradition under both Republican and Democratic governors, the budget is a morass of phony projections and misrepresented numbers put together in the service of an important myth - meeting the constitutional mandate of a balanced budget.

Actually, the notion that the budget must be balanced is a myth, too. The Illinois Constitution does not really require a balanced budget, it just appears to do so.

Proposed spending must be balanced with budget estimates. That means mucho flexibility for budgeteers intent on fudging the financial picture.

That's not the end of the dishonesty either.

To raise nearly $1 billion in new revenue, depending on one's perspective, Pritzker either proposed a series of tax increases or eliminated a series of corporate loopholes.

Terminology is as important to the slippery budget process as revenue estimates.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker has a tough job on his hands. He doesn't have near as much money as he wants or needs. He's cut some expenses but has met union opposition to employee furlough days.

That's why, even though state law requires a proposed balanced budget based on existing revenue estimates, he feels compelled to fudge. For example, Pritzker's budget includes nearly $1 billion in anticipated revenues from tax increase/corporate loophole eliminations yet to be approved.

He's also redirecting sales and cigarette tax revenues intended to go to pay for road improvements and capital projects and sweeping $565 million in special state accounts to the general fund. Then there's the business of delaying payments into the next budget year (2022-23) to make this year's budget look balanced.

The result is a budget shell game. How it plays out in the real world remains to be seen.

As for the alleged corporate loopholes, one Pritzker target is a scholarship tax that encourages individuals to make contributions that pay for academic scholarships for children from poor families.

The elimination of another corporate loophole would require farmers to pay roughly 20 cents extra per gallon of diesel fuel.

Poor kids and farmers aren't the stereotypical corporate buccaneers. But they're being cast in that role, and that's just part of the problem.

The Invest in Kids scholarship program and business rule changes Pritzker is pursuing were the result of bipartisan negotiations with this governor and his predecessor, Bruce Rauner.

For the governor to renege on agreements he made would undermine his standing as a trustworthy negotiating partner. Republican Leader Jim Durkin said he fears Pritzker will 'abandon the handshake agreement we had' and that it 'raise(s) questions about his credibility with me.'

Well, what else is new. Nothing apparently is as it's supposed to be. People usually have to wait for election season to endure the whoppers politicians throw around. Now the dishonesty runs year-round.

END

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