More inaction from Springfield?
Solving a problem is more important than labeling a problem. But when it comes to the state's public pension systems, our legislators can't seem to do either.
Illinois Senate President John Cullerton talked himself into trouble last week when he downplayed the seriousness of the state's public pension problems.
The pensions' $100 billion underfunding problem, he said, is not as big an issue as some think. "I don't think you can use the word 'crisis' to describe it at the state level," Cullerton said, characterizing the state's pension woes as "something we have to deal with," but "not something that we're on the verge of bankruptcy on."
Cullerton also acknowledged that the state's public pensions woes are not well understood by the public.
There's a reason for that.
Our elected officials haven't played straight with the public about it. For instance, in September 2012, Cullerton told The Chicago Tribune that the state pension problems actually do constitute the "c" word. Then he raised concerns that "this crisis" requires so much money to be used to shore up the state's pension systems that it won't leave enough to pay for essential state programs, including education.
We'll leave it to others to slice and dice the semantics surrounding the pension issue. Whatever label is applied, Cullerton is certainly correct that the state's pension systems pose a problem that "we have to deal with."
Unfortunately, after avoiding the issue for months and years, legislators still don't show much appetite for making the hard decisions required to reduce the $100 billion shortfall.
They returned to Springfield this week for the fall veto session, and practically the first story written about the planned gathering is that legislators are reluctant to do anything controversial because the election filing period comes up in December.
Some legislators apparently fear that they will draw primary or general election challenges if they cast any tough votes.
The pragmatists have apparently concluded that controversies, particularly the emotional pension issue, should be delayed until next year. But then, of course, it will be an election year, which has always been sufficient reason in the past for avoiding controversial issues.
Does anyone get the feeling that House and Senate members care far more about themselves and their political futures than they do about taking care of the public's business?
Cullerton is certainly correct that Illinois' many financial problems aren't enough to force bankruptcy. That's because states, unlike local and county governments, are prohibited from filing for bankruptcy.
He also is correct that the state's pension systems aren't in imminent danger of financial collapse. They do, however, face a long-term existential threat unless their problems are addressed, and each day the Legislature delays taking action the problem grows worse.
Legislators' nervousness about the pension issue is understandable. They love to play the role of Santa Claus and throw tax dollars in the direction of favored constituencies. But the pension issue will require them to play the role of the Grinch who takes goodies off the pensioners' plates to maintain the viability of the systems.
Pensioners are rightfully distressed about how they're being treated. If past governors and legislators had funded the pension systems properly instead of spending the required pension contributions on other programs, the pensions would be in fine shape.
Our elected officials can call it whatever they like. Whether it's a crisis or a problem or something else, it'll be worse tomorrow than it was today. Cullerton & Co. can keep avoiding the issue, but they can't avoid its consequences.