Editorial | Public Enemy No. 1 in Illinois

Editorial | Public Enemy No. 1 in Illinois

The state's pension mess will be the biggest issue for the winner of the governor's race.

Just another 10 days, and this dreary election year will be over. The incessant political noise will, thankfully, cease — at least for a while.

Federal races remain in doubt. The analysts are all over the place in terms of their predictions of the results.

But if the polls are correct, it's all over but the shouting for most of the statewide races in Illinois. It's another Democratic year in a solid Democratic state — the accidental election of a Republican governor in 2014 will be consigned to the ash heap of history.

But even though the politics will be put to bed, policy in our debased state remains up for grabs.

Democrat J.B. Pritzker — governor in waiting — is promising dramatic tax and spending increases. If his campaign rhetoric is to be believed, he's promised new programs that will, if estimates are to be believed, cost anywhere from $10 billion-plus to as much as $18 billion.

That's a load. It will be interesting to watch how Pritzker and legislative Democrats, who will retain their dramatic majorities in the General Assembly, implement those promised changes.

But in terms of the issues facing Illinois, that mammoth spending plan is chump change.

People might have forgotten amid the usual rhetoric that Illinois faces another huge problem that few people in charge have wanted to talk about during this election year.

What is Illinois to do about its dramatically underfunded public pension system?

Springfield's State Journal-Register recently called the $130 billion underfunding problem "Illinois' most intractable problem that also happens to be its most expensive."

It didn't have to be that way, of course. Illinois' pension woes can be traced directly to past legislators and governors who promised too much and then funded too little.

There have been all kinds of proposals about what to do to address the issue, including one that property owners will hate. How about a statewide property tax, the revenues from which will go straight to the pensions? The Chicago Federal Reserve recently proposed a 1 percent statewide residential property tax — that's an additional $2,500 on a house worth $250,000 — for many years to come.

Rauner and the Democratic Legislature have tiptoed around the problem.

Borrowing an idea initially proposed by Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan, Rauner has proposed slowly shifting the state's responsibility for paying teacher pensions to local school districts. That might save the state money, but pushing the cost on local property owners wouldn't address the core problem.

Rauner also has embraced a complicated plan promoted by Democratic Senate President John Cullerton to persuade some state employees to trade some benefits now for future benefits. That, too, has the look of a non-starter.

Pritzker has a more ambitious plan, but it's one that sorely conflicts with his goal of dramatically increasing state spending on social programs. He wants to make outsized payments to the pensions now to cut into the underfunding problem.

But state pension payments, along with Medicaid, already are consuming such a large part of the state budget, it's hard to imagine where Pritzker thinks he's going to get the money.

That's where his tax plans come into play. But he's repeatedly refused to discuss the details of what he has in mind. So that's where Illinois stands on pensions — essentially, nowhere.

The biggest problem Illinois has ever faced is a non-issue until Nov. 6, Election Day.

It will resume its status as Public Enemy No. 1 the day after, too late for voters to factor it into their decision on who will lead the state for the next four years.

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