Resolutions for 2018, Part II of II

Resolutions for 2018, Part II of II

Big-ticket items — a new ice arena, the nursing home and the state pension crisis — remain on this year's agenda.

On Sunday, we offered three resolutions for the new year. Today we continue with three more for state and local government.

For the University of Illinois and Champaign: Settle the questions about the future of local hockey.

Will the local collegiate hockey remain a club sport or will the UI Division of Intercollegiate Athletics add men's and women's Division I teams? Will hockey be played at Hans Grotelueschen's proposed $150 million downtown Champaign development, or will the UI opt to follow Peter Fox's suggestion and build an ice arena across the street from the State Farm Center and adjacent to Fox's I Hotel?

Or will nothing happen and will the aging UI Ice Arena, operated by campus recreation, continue to serve students and the public for hockey and skating?

Over the summer, hockey and new ice arenas were the talk of the town. Since then, however, public chatter has quieted down.

The National Hockey League and DIA are studying what's involved in adding two teams to its current roster of 19 (nine men's and 10 women's teams). Likewise, staffers for the city of Champaign are doing their due diligence on Grotelueschen's massive mixed-use project.

While there appear to be no firm deadlines on any of these plans or studies, the university and the larger community need answers this year.

For the Champaign County Board: Sell the county nursing home.

We understand a significant portion of the public wants the Champaign County Nursing Home to remain open as a publicly owned facility. But there are too many factors weighing against that option.

First, the home has been losing money for years. While it continues to meet payroll, the facility owes $5.1 million to vendors and the county government as of Dec. 12. Even with a new management company in charge, the nursing home is still spending more money than it takes in. According to the county auditor, the home overspends revenues by about $130,000 a month.

Second, the nursing home is not a service the county is mandated to provide. By diverting money to the nursing home, other mission-critical services and building maintenance go unfunded.

Third, taxpayers should not be subsidizing a service that the private sector already provides. A private company has to operate within its means, or it goes out of business. When a government enterprise incurs a deficit, it looks to the taxpayers to bail it out.

In April, voters rejected higher taxes to support the nursing home, and they voted to authorize the county board to sell it. It's time for the county board to listen to its constituents.

For the Illinois General Assembly: Find a way to tame the pension crisis.

The word "crisis" is sometimes used as hyperbole. But not when the subject is the funding of Illinois' public pensions.

In the current fiscal year, the state is making a $7.9 billion contribution to the five state-run funds (downstate and suburban teachers, state workers, university employees, judges and lawmakers). By comparison, the state spends $15.8 billion from its general fund on K-12 education, $3.8 billion on higher education.

In fiscal year 2019, the state's pension payment is expected to rise to at least $8.5 billion. If nothing changes, the state is projected to spend $19.6 billion in FY 2045 on pensions.

Clearly, these figures make clear that pension spending is crowding out spending on other state services, such as education, health care and transportation. This is just as unsustainable as the county nursing home — but the shortfall is a thousand times greater.

What's to be done? One option is probably off the table for good. In 2015, the Illinois Supreme Court ruled that modifying benefits for current and vested pension members is unconstitutional. Canceling the annual 3 percent cost of living increase, for example, is a nonstarter.

One option that is worth serious consideration: a 401(k)-like retirement plan for new state workers. Unlike a defined-benefit plan, new workers own their retirement money, and they could take that nest egg with them if they change jobs.

What state lawmakers cannot do is punt every time the crisis rears its ugly head. The Legislature created this problem by overpromising. Only the General Assembly can solve it.

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GLG wrote on January 01, 2018 at 9:01 am

We can thank members of both parties for the pension mess, they spent the money on everything but the pensions, all perfectly legal by changing the laws and skipping payments! The supreme court told the state this is not a crisis, The state  has the ability to increase taxes to pay the pension debt but they have done little to fix it.  Maybe a new lottery game for pensions, It has worked for the schools! Hasn't it ?.