Listen to this article

Call them cliches or give them the kinder characterization of aphorisms.

Pithy sayings always have their place because, in a handful of words, they send a clear message.

Here's one: The first rule of holes is that when you're in one, quit digging.

Most people can figure out the meaning — don't make a bad problem worse.

There's a lot to be said for taking that approach to problems. Sensible people actually recommend it as a prudent exercise of judgment.

But not everyone agrees.

That's why leaders of the Illinois Education Association were in Springfield this past week calling for more generous pension-spiking legislation that will drive the already badly underfunded Teachers Retirement System even deeper in debt.

They want to increase the maximum salary "threshold" for retiring teachers from 3 percent a year to 6 percent.

"Our teachers depend on it. Our students depend on it. And we won't fix this teacher shortage without it," says the politically powerful IEA.

Note the use of the language there — salary threshold. It sounds so much nicer than salary spiking.

But salary spiking is what this issue is about.

In the early 2000s, all kinds of public entities, including local school districts, engaged in an early-retirement orgy. Understanding that younger, less experienced teachers were cheaper than older, more experienced teachers, they created incentives to persuade the veterans to go.

One method was offering large salary increases to teachers approaching the end of their careers that would boost their retirement benefits. Teacher pensions are based on their last four years of pay.

So many districts, like Mahomet-Seymour, offered multi-year increases of 20 percent to generate faculty turnover. After watching teachers get in on the bonanza, administrators asked to be part of the deal.

It was a money-saving proposition for the school district because their only extra cost was the extra four years of pay for retiring teachers.

The cost of paying the extra pension benefits was dumped on the TRS, meaning the taxpayers.

A practice that started small got bigger and bigger.

Finally, the legislators, watching a growing share of state spending going toward pension funding, declared in 2005 that end-of-career salary spikes could not exceed 6 percent. Any school district that boosted pay for retiring teachers above that amount would have to pay extra into the TRS.

Teachers unions, once again showing their negotiating brilliance, soon persuaded many school districts that they must give 6 percent annual increases to retiring teachers. What was supposed to be a ceiling became a floor.

That was not the case in all school districts.

Champaign and Urbana negotiated an end to salary spiking.

Just a year ago, the Legislature, again trying to slow increasing pension costs, lowered the 6 percent level to 3 percent.

The limit doesn't mean that local school districts can't give increases to impending retirees larger than 3 percent. It just means school districts that do will have to pay the extra costs to cover the higher pensions.

It's hardly surprising local school districts don't want to pay extra. So IEA hopes to use its considerable political muscle to persuade the Legislature to reinstate this year what it repealed last year.

The measure was included in legislation — SB 1952 — that passed the state Senate. But it was removed from the version that passed the House.

With the state's total pension underfunding debt, including that for TRS, approaching $136 billion officially — a more accurate, but unofficial, estimate based on more realistic projected rates of investment returns is about $235 billion — legislators are confronting a Hamlet-like question: to dig or not to dig.

Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached at jdey@news-gazette.com or 217-351-5369.

Opinions Editor

Jim Dey is a staff writer for The News-Gazette. His email is jdey@news-gazette.com.