Legislators fail on pension issue
Our legislators had one vitally important job to do and they utterly failed.
So much about state government in Illinois ought to be unthinkable, even though it is not.
The state's multibillion-dollar debt ought to be unthinkable. But there it is.
The corruption that stains our state from top to bottom ought to be unthinkable. But it's a matter of historical record, so deeply ingrained in our political culture that many people laugh it off.
Our current financial woes, driven by years of overspending, ought to be unthinkable. Nonetheless, the General Assembly just approved a budget that will go into effect on July 1 and increase spending by nearly $2 billion over the current year. The Legislature just can't resist spending money it doesn't have; its solution to the problem is just putting the new bills it can't pay on top of the stack of old bills it can't pay.
So while it ought to be unthinkable that legislators would leave Springfield having failed to address the gigantic financial problems surrounding the state's five public pension systems, it's not unthinkable at all. It's irresponsible, self-destructive business as usual.
Last year, when the General Assembly didn't act on the pension problem, pension systems were underfunded by about $85 billion. As of last week, they were underfunded by roughly $97 billion. The numbers keep going up. State officials put the daily underfunding increase at $17 million a day. That's $500 million more every 30 days, and the daily amount grows as the overall debt grows.
Do our legislators realize the depth of the problem, the systemic threat to the state's ability to fund core state functions like education, mental health, roads, law enforcement?
Do they even care? If so, their concern is not apparent.
It was a standoff when the General Assembly adjourned last week. The House passed its own pension bill and the Senate passed its own pension bill, but the two bodies could not agree on a single pension bill.
House Speaker Michael Madigan blamed Senate President John Cullerton for exercising poor leadership in not passing the House bill. Cullerton blamed Madigan for not calling Cullerton's Senate bill for a vote in the House. (Cullerton called Madigan's bill for a vote in the Senate, where it was handily defeated.)
This was a monumental failure that dwarfs any other action that was taken in the General Assembly. What had to be done — coming up with a solution to this problem — was not done.
Gov. Quinn, who subtly supported the Madigan bill, has joked that he was put on this Earth to oversee the passage of a bill effectively addressing the financial woes of Illinois' public pensions. But he's been unable to persuade the Legislature to act, and the problem has long since passed the danger point.
State Rep. Tom Cross, leader of minority Republicans in the House, was right when he told his colleagues that "our foundation is crumbling" to the point that the state might "not be able to be saved."
The problem — as everyone who's been paying attention knows — is that so much money is obligated to keep the public pension systems afloat that it crowds out funds for other core state programs. There is simply not enough money to go around.
It's all the fault of current and past state leaders who skipped pension payments in previous years, preferring to spend the money elsewhere. Now it takes such huge amounts to address the current underfunding that the rest of state government is in danger of starving.
There are, of course, different ideas about how to address the problem. Madigan's bill was the most aggressive approach, and public employees, retirees and union leaders didn't like the cuts in future benefits it entailed. Cullerton's bill was less aggressive and backed by public employee unions.
Pass one. Pass the other. Pass them both. Pass something to address an issue that cannot be ignored.
Instead, legislators, who are fearful of doing anything, passed nothing. This problem won't go away. It will only get worse, making the solution ever harder to craft and creating another, even better excuse for doing nothing.