Tom Kacich: '05 pension 'holiday' made things worse
It says something about the sad state of Illinois government that the only competing pension reform proposals that got serious consideration from the Legislature this spring came from two lawmakers who eight years ago voted to skip two years' worth of pension payments.
That $2.3 billion "pension holiday" may not have been the main cause of the gruesome condition of the state's pension systems, but it sure made things worse.
At that time, the state's pension systems had compiled about $38.6 billion in debt. Now that figure, eight years later, is around $100 billion. And because lawmakers did nothing to solve the problem, particularly in a dreadful last week of legislative gridlock, the number continues to grow.
If Republicans can't make political hay out of this situation, they'll never be able to do it. That's because it was the Democrats alone — including House Speaker Michael Madigan and now-Senate President John Cullerton — who voted for and even pushed those "pension skips" in May 2005.
State Rep. Naomi Jakobsson, D-Urbana, voted to skip the pension payments. She defended the vote at the time, saying it helped avoid "disastrous" cuts to education, health care and social services.
But Republican legislators, including many from East Central Illinois, were right on target in opposing the pension holiday.
"You are playing with fire," said now-retired Rep. Bill Black of Danville. "You are playing with potential bankruptcy of the pension system. We are mortgaging all of our tomorrows for the expediency of adjournment by May 31."
Black not only was prescient; history repeated itself this year. Democrats, who have enormous majorities in both the Senate and the House, adjourned on May 31 without fixing the pension mess because they couldn't decide between two Democratic-backed plans.
Black wasn't alone in predicting future problems.
"For every dollar we get from the systems today," said then-state Rep. Chapin Rose, R-Mahomet, "the cost is 11 dollars to get it back. It's like Wimpy from Popeye. 'I'll gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today.'"
Rose recalled the pension debate and vote on Tuesday, calling it "probably the worst single vote in the last 25 years." He estimated it is responsible for 33 percent to 40 percent of the state's pension mess.
Maybe. There have been many pension system underpayments and pensions sweeteners over the last 70 years by Republican and Democratic governors, and Democratic and Republican legislators. There even were university presidents who didn't object to slighting the pensions in exchange for a faculty and staff pay raise.
But it's hard to find another example of such a single rotten idea that had such a broad rotten impact.
"This is a little like the state using a credit card, charging a little more and a little more, but only making the minimum payment," Sen. Dale Righter, R-Mattoon, said at the time. "While we're doing it, the debt keeps getting larger and larger."
Sounds familiar, doesn't it?
But then-Senate President Emil Jones called it "the right thing to do," and he and Madigan worked with the-Gov. (and now federal inmate) Rod Blagojevich to skip the pension payment so that other general revenue spending — and some side deals for pork barrel spending — would get done.
So it's more than odd that the only pension fixes considered this spring came from Madigan and Cullerton, and that they still can't fix the problem even though they have huge majorities.
What a sad state. In more ways than one.
Tom Kacich is a News-Gazette editor and columnist. His column appears on Wednesdays and Sundays. He can be reached at 351-5221 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.