Not everyone needs to be a state employee to get a state pension.
Gail Purkey worked for nearly seven years for the state of Illinois before she took a job as a lobbyist with a teacher's union.
With insufficient time served to qualify for a state pension, Purkey cashed out her roughly $5,000 in pension contributions in 1988 and took it with her to a new job at the Illinois Federation of Teachers.
Now retired for two years from her private lobbyist job, Purkey is collecting an annual $101,000 state pension, a sum ostensibly based on a career as a state employee.
How does an employee of the private sector end up with a generous state pension despite not only not working long enough on the state payroll to qualify, but also cashing out of the state pension system besides?
The usual explanation applies — it's another example of business-as-usual beneath the statehouse dome in Springfield.
Purkey was a beneficiary of special legislation passed by House Speaker Michael Madigan in the 2006 post-election veto session. The bill was aimed at taking care of a handful of employees of the teachers' union, which donated generously to former Gov. Rod Blagojevich and Democratic legislative leaders in that year's election campaign.
The legislation granted Purkey, whose highest state salary was $36,800, a one-time-only six-month window of opportunity to join the State Employees' Retirement System, using both her time as a public employee and her roughly 20 years of work with a private employer to qualify.
Purkey not only qualified for the six-figure pension but free health insurance as well.
At least two other union members were able to take advantage of this Madigan-sponsored gift. Previous news reports indicated that the union executives were able to qualify for six-figure public pensions by working one day each as a substitute teacher.
That report so embarrassed legislators and Gov. Pat Quinn that they passed legislation in January aimed at wiping out the benefit, although there are legal questions as to whether pension benefits once earned — however they are earned — can be taken away.
Purkey's special treatment provides more proof, as if any was needed, of how the state's beleaguered public pensions systems, which are underfunded by more than $80 billion, have been abused for political purposes over the years.
The pension systems are now teetering under the pressure of possible insolvency, prompting Gov. Pat Quinn to repeatedly urge legislators to take action. So far, legislators have refused. Most recently, Quinn called for a one-day special legislative session to deal with the problem, but members of both the Senate and House met only briefly before adjourning and returning home to campaign for re-election.
Both House Speaker Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton recently said they expect to wait until after the November election before taking up the pension issue again.
As is usually the case when stories like this are disclosed, none of the principals has any memory of who did what.
Purkey said she just "followed what the law said." Madigan's spokesman, Steve Brown, said he has no "recollection" as to whether his boss was trying to help Purkey.
Madigan and Purkey are definitely connected. She worked for him in the Illinois House and for Madigan's wife at the Illinois Arts Council.
Concluding that the best defense is a good offense, Purkey is trying to portray herself as being an inappropriate target of criticism over the pension deal. She said that buying her state time cost her an estimated $666,000, a contribution she claims was a "help to the system."
But her numbers don't add up. She transferred $480,000 in her union retirement account to the state, a lateral move, and paid the rest herself. Purkey did so not to be generous to the state's pension system, but because she knew she was getting a far better deal from the state than she would have from the union.
With two years of pension revenues already under her belt, the 58-year-old Purkey will make back all her contributions in five more years and collect the $101,000 annual pension for the rest of her life, not to mention the annual 3 percent cost-of-living increases and the health insurance.
Taxpayers, no doubt, are tired of reading about and subsidizing these kind of shenanigans. But they'll keep happening as long as those who commit or condone them are returned to Springfield. Bear that in mind as Election Day approaches.