The time for meaningful action on the State’s Pension problem is now. The billions of dollars that saddle the State with an economic pension albatross cannot be solved by shifting the burden to school districts or to local governments as some leaders in Springfield have talked about.
The problem requires structural change. That means that the suggestions that were made by Governor Quinn deserve serious discussion and action. Whether the specific details of his proposals are approved or not, they are meaningful ideas and concepts that need to be considered for adoption. The only way to stop the bleeding of our state’s coffers is to make some real changes that will have a long term effect on the amount of money that has to be paid, not just changing who pays it.
The suggestions for raising the retirement age, increasing the amount that public employees pay towards their pensions, and limiting the annual automatic cost of living increase is the only way that the State can begin to fix the pension problem. These would all be prospective changes and would not diminish or take away any pensions that had already been earned and which are protected by the Illinois constitution.
Giving some choices and options to employees with regard to some other benefits which are not constitutionally protected as an alternative to newly structured pensions is surely another way to avoid some of the constitutional questions which some have raised. No one wants to hurt the employees that a have earned and worked hard for their pensions. The employees and the public employee unions however need to understand that if real changes are not made, and made soon, there may not be a pot from which to pay their pensions, and pension payments to extent money is available may be delayed for months on end just as many vendors and governments have to wait for their payments today. That won’t be much help or comfort to retirees who timely need their monthly checks to make ends meet.
The concept of shifting who pays may reduce the amount that the State has to pay, but the shift to schools or local governments could have dire consequences. As a former school board member and former village trustee and mayor, I appreciate and understand the serious potential impact. At the municipal level for years I saw increases in pension benefits adopted in Springfield, which led to millions of dollars that had to paid by our municipal governments. That meant either tax increases which no one likes to see or significant cuts in local services that could affect public safety or other critical services. That is why the state must make sure to make those needed pension structural changes for police and fire and other municipal employees when they adopt them for all other public employee pensions.
Likewise if there was a major shift to our local schools of the current state pension obligations, the impact would be similar with either major program cuts and firing of teachers or major real estate tax bill increases which are at current levels already over burdening local taxpayers. If as part of the process of reform the legislature elects to shift some of the states pension burden it must be targeted and focused and fair. That would mean it should only primarily be for pensions of newly hired teachers and employees so school districts can plan accordingly, and possibly for pensions of highly paid administrative personnel which local schools boards directly control.
Moreover the administrative personnel arena has been the area where many districts have given huge salary boosts to bump up pensions; and it would not be unreasonable for the districts to have to be responsible for those pensions. Only such targeted shifts would be fair, and would limit the critical damage that could be done by any type of total shift of burden.
Failure to act promptly on structural changes to the pension systems will only mean that the problem will be augmented. We cannot afford to see the can kicked down the road again as it has been done year after year. Our legislators need to hear our voices, and need to know that it is simply not acceptable not act before they go home. Likewise they need to hear that merely shifting the burden is not fair to their constituents who happen to be taxpayers who will end up paying for the shifts with higher property tax bills or major cuts in services and programs.
Don’t just read this and assume someone else will speak out. Call, email or write your legislators today so they know you agree with me that they must act on this pension problem that continues to grow each day that they fail to act on real meaningful structural changes. If you have some ideas on how they should deal with the problem please share them. They need to hear your ideas!!!!!
Elliott Hartstein is a former three-term mayor of Buffalo Grove, former village trustee of Buffalo Grove, and a former School Board member of Adlai Stevenson High School District 125 and of Skokie Elementary District 69