Pension fight far from over
Even sausage makers are sickened by how the legislative process works in Illinois.
Now that the Illinois General Assembly has approved the heretofore secret pension bill, Gov. Pat Quinn will sign it. Then the battleground will move to a new venue — the state courts. Eventually, the Illinois Supreme Court will decide if the public pension package approved Tuesday passes constitutional muster.
Not until then will Illinoisans know whether their legislators acted in a meaningful way Tuesday when they approved controversial legislation designed to ease our public pension woes.
Whatever the court decides, the General Assembly's action represents one of the more acrimonious chapters in state political history.
While public union leaders and their members screamed of being robbed, supporters contended that putting limits on benefits is necessary to save the system from collapse. No small number of outside critics suggested the proposed changes do not go far enough.
Finally, many legislators were simply ducking for cover, hoping that the pension bill would pass without their support. They got their wish.
In a nearly perfect demonstration of a structured roll call — the bipartisan conspiracy in which leaders of both parties provide yes votes from some of their members so other of their members can vote no — the bill passed the House and Senate by the narrowest of margins.
What effect will the bill have in reducing the estimated $100 billion public pension underfunding problem? No one can say for sure.
Its supporters contend it will save $160 billion over the next 30-plus years by putting limits on benefits paid out of the pension funds while increasing revenues paid in. Their goal is to erase the underfunding over that period.
It ought to be obvious to everyone by now that if the state was starting from scratch in creating a pension system, it would never consider creating the unaffordable monstrosity now in place. It simply guarantees too much to too many for too little.
Even under the new legislation, teachers in their 20s can expect to retire at 60 on a pension that pays 75 percent of their salaries plus cost-of-living adjustments. That's far out of whack compared with the benefits for private sector workers who pay the bill for their public-sector counterparts.
Since the system is in place, however, the political challenge of fixing it is overwhelming. Critics suggest that Illinois should get out of the pension business by paying public employees what they have earned and shifting them to a 401(k) defined contribution plan. But that's a political non-starter. Legislators could hardly bring themselves to nibble around the edges of this gargantuan problem, let alone swallow it whole.
Even the changes that were approved have outraged pension system leaders and members, who are promising political retribution at the polls. It's too bad for them that legislators have walled themselves off from political accountability by waiting until after the election filing period to act, gerrymandering districts in which to safely run and structuring the vote tally so mostly legislators holding safe seats cast the controversial yes votes.
No one but the seven justices on the state's highly politicized Supreme Court can say what those yes votes mean. That's why it's important the legal challenge be conducted on an expedited schedule. After the trial court rules, the high court should take the appeal up immediately, bypassing the state's intermediate court.
Whatever the high court decides, state finances remain an utter disaster. Our legislators are determined to spend more than the state brings in, and unpaid bills are in excess of $5 billion. There's also the potential problem of legislators not fulfilling the payment pledges contained in the pension bill. It's their repeated failure to properly fund the public pensions that got Illinois in this mess.
Nonetheless, legislators, after years of wringing their hands and allowing the problem to grow far worse, have finally acted to put a fix in play. Ignore all the self-congratulations about their vaunted courage — it was, at best, a staggering, stunted step forward.