Kept in the dark and covered with manure, our mushroom legislators cast important votes without adequate deliberation.
About a month ago, Gov. J.B. Pritzker released a task force report calling for the consolidation of downstate municipal fire and police pension funds and called for quick action by the legislature to pass it into law.
This past week, Pritzker got what he wanted — the House and Senate both passed the measure by large bipartisan margins.
The results prove two things, one impressive and one not:
— Pritzker, not surprisingly, stands in good stead with legislators.
— Rank-and-file legislators do not have either the stomach or the courage to take the time necessary to study complicated issues when party leaders crack the whip.
That’s why it’s hard to say whether the pension consolidation legislation that was passed is a good thing or not. It looks like it’s a step in the right direction, but, absent an examination of serious issues related to consolidation of roughly 650 local fire and police pensions into two, it’s difficult to say with confidence that it is.
One thing this move is not, however, is a big step in the right direction. At best, it’s a small step in the right direction for these mostly underfunded fire and police pensions.
That’s why the public should ignore grandiose pronouncements from their legislators about what a great thing they have done.
Consider the comments from one member of the Illinois Senate.
“We’re finally doing what Illinois is supposed to do, which is get ahead of these issues before it becomes a crisis,” said Sen. Linda Holmes of Aurora.
Actually, the state is getting ahead of nothing. These pension funds, collectively, already face a financial crisis.
Illinois is taking the step of consolidation, a move intended to reduce administrative costs and potentially increase investment returns. Under a best-case scenario, one disputed by experts, the pension funds might generate an additional $800 million to $2.5 billion in additional income over five years.
That’s not chump change, but these funds face nearly $12 billion in unfunded liabilities.
It is reassuring that all the interested parties — the Illinois Municipal League and unions representing firefighters and police officers — were able to work out their differences and agree on legislation.
But that does not mean that the planned consolidation, particularly as it related to transition costs, will work as intended.
Under the proposal, there will be two pension funds — one for firefighters and the other for police — that will be managed by independent boards. In that respect, the funds will function like the pension systems for municipal employees and teachers.
No one would suggest that it would be best if each municipality or school district managed their own pension system for their employees. That kind of approach would be too unwieldy.
But in this case, all these separate fire and police funds exist, and the challenge is how to combine them in a way that generates administrative savings and investment gains.
The devil, as they say, is in the details, the details that our legislators refused to examine before acquiescing to pressure to vote now and worry later about the wisdom of their votes.
Legislators may have cast a good vote. The public should cross its collective fingers and hope they cast a good vote. Sometime far down the road — when actual results can be compared to promised results — everyone will find out if their hopes were realized.