Another failure by the Legislature
Is the word "pathetic" too harsh to describe Illinois legislators? Hardly.
Members of the Illinois House and Senate decided this week to speed up our public pension programs' descent into insolvency, cut spending for vital state programs like education and law enforcement and continue self-destructive financial management practices.
Of course, they would never characterize it that way. They might even take offense at the description.
But that's the net effect of their continued refusal to address the staggering financial problems surrounding the state's five public pension systems. Not making a decision is a decision in itself, and legislators' decision not to act earlier this week has guaranteed a host of negative consequences.
It appeared over the weekend that there was a chance some progress might be made in addressing the $95 billion underfunding problem that plagues the public employee pensions.
Gov. Pat Quinn and Democratic and Republican legislative leaders on Friday announced a breakthrough in negotiations, leading to speculation that lame-duck legislators meeting in the waning days of the old General Assembly might vote on a pension plan. But, as has been the case in the past, discussions broke down into a fight over whose plan was the best, and everything fell apart.
When the perfect becomes the enemy of the good, all hope of progress is lost, and that's what happened here. Legislative leaders and some rank-and-file House and Senate members managed to find fault with each other's plans and could not work out their differences.
In the meantime, Illinois is left with a horrendous debt, deficit and pension underfunding problems that grow worse by the day.
New legislators, the ones elected in November, took office Wednesday afternoon, and now it's their job to do what their predecessors could not. The only reason to have any hope at all for progress is that the problem is growing so vast that it is becoming impossible to ignore.
Of course, that depends on one's perspective.
One would have thought that the pensions' financial woes were impossible to ignore five years ago. But state Rep. Elaine Nekritz, a Northbrook Democrat who has been working to find a solution, said in the aftermath of the latest failure that it's her opinion that many of her colleagues do not understand the depth of the problem.
That's quite an indictment of our legislators' collective judgment, shocking perhaps but not particularly surprising in light of what's transpired.
The disconnect, however, extends beyond legislative ignorance and indifference. Too many union leaders and public pension members oppose legislative changes because they seem to think that the status quo is sustainable. It is not.
Illinois simply does not have enough money to meet its pension obligations while continuing to fund core state programs.
Taxpayers already are paying more to support the pension systems, courtesy of the 67 percent state income tax increase in January 2011.
Now reformers suggest it's time to limit pension benefits by modifying annual cost-of-living increases to retirees, raising the retirement age or requiring increased contributions by current employees.
It's no surprise that pension system members aren't happy about those prospects. But what are the alternatives if the systems' financial viability is to be preserved?
According to the Quinn administration, this paralysis comes at an estimated cost of $17 million a day, roughly $500 million per month.
Still, the Legislature has been relentless in their repose. Nothing can wake them from their slumbers.
Maybe they think it's all a bad dream. But it's not.
It is a problem that will not go away, no matter how fervently our elected officials may pray that it do so. Only they can bring it to an end.