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
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.
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.
Get our latest editorials, op-eds and columns delivered twice a week in our newsletter. Sign up here.