Gov. J.B. Pritzker and Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot are confronting a problem that just keeps getting worse.
The city of Chicago’s faltering finances — roughly $30 billion in pension debt and an $838 million budget hole — continue to dominate headlines across the state, and for good reason.
Lightfoot, the city’s rookie mayor, has made it clear that she’s going to ask the Legislature for assistance in dealing with the problem, indicating that she considers her city’s issues to be a statewide problem that is going to require assistance from Illinois taxpayers.
So far, however, the mayor has not revealed what she has in mind, her bold pronouncements one day followed by clarifications the next.
Lightfoot is in a tight spot, so her shaky position is somewhat understandable. Nonetheless, she’ll eventually have to put her cards on the table.
But Chicago’s finances and the state’s finances do not, unfortunately, represent the totality of the dilemma faced by the residents of the Land of Lincoln.
Ted Dabrowski and John Klingner, budget analysts for Wirepoints, contend that Illinois’ finances are “falling apart everywhere.”
“The state’s one-size-fits-all pension laws and overly generous benefits have left many cities suffocating under impossible pension debts as their populations shrink, tax burdens jump and resident incomes stagnate,” they write.
They cite, among other issues, the state’s 630 downstate fire and police pensions, whose costs are driving many cities “toward insolvency.”
Recent Illinois Department of Insurance numbers from 2017 indicate that more than half of the 630 pension funds have “funded ratios lower than 60 percent. And nearly 100 funds had funded ratios below 40 percent.”
There is a move underway to consolidate the 630 different funds under one roof, laying the groundwork for lowering administrative costs and slightly increasing investment returns. If that change is approved, the fire and police pension funds would operate as the state’s Teachers Retirement System does.
Nonetheless, the dramatically increasing costs of funding the fire and police pensions remain a formidable challenge.
Springfield budget director Bill McCarty recently informed members of his city council that taxpayers there will have to come up with an extra $269 million over the next 20 years (that’s $13.45 million a year) above its current contributions to fire and police pensions.
“... the expected growth is much larger than what we expect our revenues to grow in order to keep up,” he said.
In Peoria, Mayor Jim Ardis faces a similar dilemma. He anticipates the city will spend “100 percent of our property taxes” on fire and police pensions, and “still not totally address the problem.”
What that portends for already costly property taxes, obviously, is not good.
That’s why Pritzker has put together a property-tax task force to study the issue and make recommendations. If members of the task force are serious, they’ll have to focus, among other things, on the consolidation and/or elimination of some of the state’s thousands of units of local government.
After all, if property taxes are going to continue to increase on one end, government officials have an obligation to look for cost-cutting efficiencies on the other.
But Illinois is way past the point where small fixes will do the job. At the same time, they can’t tax their way out of the problem, despite Pritzker’s pledge that passing his proposed progressive income-tax hike amendment will solve all the state’s financial woes.
So far, the Legislature has been stymied by court rulings in its effort to slow the growth of future pension costs. At the same time, there’s no indication legislators are interested passing legislation allowing municipalities to file for bankruptcy reorganization, a la Detroit.
This kind of unrelenting bad news — death, as it were, by a thousand cuts — gets under many people’s skin. They prefer to pretend there’s nothing to worry about.
But when a state and its people are in this big a hole, there’s a lot to worry about.
The numbers just don’t lie, even if those in charge sometimes insist they do.