Thousands of university and public school employees in East Central Illinois will be affected by Gov. Pat Quinn's plan to restructure the state's financially beleaguered public pension systems.
Proof of just what poor shape Illinois' public pension systems are in can be found in Gov. Pat Quinn's proposals for fixing them.
No governor who didn't feel that he had to do so would offer the kind of harsh medicine that prompted such hyperventilating outrage from employee union leaders.
Quinn's proposals were released Friday, just one day after he proposed similarly tough medicine for addressing the state's Medicaid system. Together, those two budget behemoths consume 39 percent of the state's general fund budget, and Quinn argued that has to stop.
"Unsustainable pension costs are squeezing core programs in education, public safety and human services, in addition to limiting our ability to pay bills," said Quinn, explaining why he believes such dramatic changes should be approved by legislators.
This plan will, no doubt, be vigorously opposed by powerful political interests.
State AFL-CIO chief Michael Carrigan described the Quinn plan as "insensitive and irresponsible" as well as "unfair and unconstitutional," so much so that "the governor has made the process of finding common ground much more difficult."
But Tyrone Fahner of Chicago's Civic Committee described the Quinn plan as "important movement toward solving our pension problems." Fahner, however, warned that "the devil is always in the details" and concluded that "further refinement is necessary."
Illinois' public pensions are underfunded by roughly $83 billion, a deficit that prompted Quinn to suggest dramatic changes affecting employees hired before Jan. 1, 2011. Legislators already have approved reduced budget benefits for public employees hired after that date.
Those pre-Jan. 1, 2011, employees were given a stark choice:
— If they remain in their current defined-benefit plan, they will lose state health benefits when they retire.
— If they wish to keep their health benefits, they must agree to transfer to the new Quinn plan that mandates greater employee contributions for lesser benefits, leading to a system 100 percent funded by 2042.
Under the revised plan, employees would:
— Face a 3 percent increase in contributions to their retirement systems.
— Receive dramatically reduced cost-of-living increases.
— Face a higher retirement age, 67, to be phased in over a period of years.
Quinn also would limit public pension plans solely to public employees, ending a perk that has allowed many non-public employees to enjoy lavish pensions at public expense.
One of the most controversial Quinn proposals would require school districts, universities and community colleges to gradually pick up their employees' pension costs. This proposal could be a body blow for those cash-strapped institutions, many of which rely on property taxes, and it is sure to cause yet another political firestorm.
Gov. Quinn deserves credit for backing a serious proposal. But it's unclear just who else will support it. Senate President John Cullerton, choosing his words carefully, announced that he is "pleased that the governor's proposal embraces a legal framework that will allow the state to control pension costs in a constitutional way."
But politics, as much as legalities, will determine how legislators react, and Quinn has little sway with them. Indeed, the proposal he put forth didn't even have the backing of the working group made up of legislators and administration appointees Quinn formed.
A statement issued by the governor's office said the Quinn plan "reflects the (group's) discussions" and that "the working group continues ... in an effort to find full consensus on all elements of the proposal." Among group members is state Sen. Bill Brady, a Republican from Bloomington.
If nothing else, however, Quinn's proposal is an important conversation starter. Elected officials in Springfield have been ducking a serious talk on this issue for years, but it's getting harder for them to ignore.