The state may try to solve its pension problems by passing the buck.
Gov. Pat Quinn, in his State of the State speech Wednesday, briefly alluded to the financial problems surrounding Illinois' public pension systems, stating that there will be no easy fix.
He's right, and we're looking forward to the recommendations made by a Quinn-organized working group made up of legislators and members of the governor's staff.
But Quinn as well as House Speaker Michael Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton already have dropped some big hints about some changes they would like to see in funding pensions for retired teachers and public university employees. Unfortunately, one of their big ideas is not so much reform as passing the buck to local school boards and university administrators.
Gov. Quinn has said that the practice of the state paying for employee contributions to the Teachers' Retirement System and the State Universities Retirement System "requires careful examination" because employers "need to have a stake in funding their own employees' pension costs." In other words, the payment made (or not made) by the state should be made instead by the employer.
Madigan has made similar comments. One never knows exactly where he really stands because he doesn't so much announce a position as drop hints.
Nonetheless, Madigan recently suggested it was something unusual for employers not to have skin in the game with regard to their employees' pensions.
(What's really absurd is for Madigan to make any statement about reform when he was responsible for legislation that allowed two Springfield teachers' union lobbyists to qualify for lifetime $100,000-a-year teacher pensions after working one day each as substitute teachers.)
Adopting this plan would require local school districts and universities to assume a huge new financial burden. A spokesman for the Illinois Association of School Boards characterized that shift in responsibility as meaning "an $800 million cut in public education funding or ... an $800 million property tax increase to cover pension costs."
Those choices won't do much for the digestion of school board members across the state.
They probably would note that they already make substantial payments to the Teachers' Retirement System for their employees' pensions. They certainly would argue that this new burden would be unendurable.
Although they cannot impose property taxes, public universities would face the same cost burden, creating one more reason to keep raising tuition.
This proposal should not be adopted, and perhaps it won't pass master with Quinn's working group. The governor's office already is getting some blow-back on the issue.
But Quinn and Co. are laying the groundwork to ease their burden by increasing the burdens of school board members and university trustees. Those who would be affected should consider themselves forewarned.