The Pension Mess

I am suffering a bout of insomnia, and so I have been trolling the internet, attempting to become sufficiently world-weary so I can log more sleep.  The Sun Times site featured a story on state pensions, and promised a slide show of folks who have excessive pensions.  I will tell you that I am familiar and content with the notion of pensions for workers who contribute throughout their working life, with the employer mirroring the contribution.  In Illinois,for example, teachers may not collect Social Security if they choose to participate in the pension program.  It IS their security. I was not ready for the actuarial nightmare that Illinois has in its state pension program.  Now it is OUR problem. We pay.   There is massive gaming of the system: double dipping, massive retirement bonuses, short term, end of service pay increases to add to lifelong benefits- it is shocking.  The really eye opening part- and mind you, I did not want my eyes opened when I made that first click- is the chasm between what some state employees pay in, in total, relative to what they receive.  The financial model is ruinous, and we will have to fill the gap as taxpayers. This is an equal opportunity swamp; there are Republicans and Democrats, men and women.  To tease you into visiting this investigation, I will offer one example.  Arthur Berman, former state Senator, had a final salary in the General Assembly, of $56, 657.  His original pension was $119, 439 per year.  How does that happen?  He had a short term job with the Chicago Board of Education after he left the Senate.  He gets a 36% bump for longevity in the Illinois Senate (32 years) and receives 3% cost of living raises.  He is free to add to his income in his job as a lawyer. Here is why Illinois is going broke:  He paid in a total of $109, 203.  He has received $1.3 million since  2001.  He broke no rules, but he certainly benefitted from a system that the General Assembly constructed for themselves.  I wish him long life and health, and as a taxpayer here, I will help to make it so. Go see- you will be discouraged, but illuminated.  Pensions cost 800 million a month.  Investing pension dollars has been a treasure chest for many Illinois political donors.  The economy has contributed to the instability here, but it is time to shine a light.  We need an independent auditor to examine this mess, and a solution must be sculpted by someone other than beneficiaries.  

The greatest irony for me is that I am on a Village board, and pensions are a large part of our budget.  We must have our police pensions fully funded within 15 years by legislative mandate, yet the legislature has repeatedly changed the pension statutes, often creating greater and unforeseen obligations.  They have also imposed a tax cap upon us, so we cannot raise property taxes- our main funding option-to pay for the pension.  In a small Village, our choices are limited when we balance the budget:  we can cut services or personnel.  The State of Illinois can raise taxes, underfund the programs, or they could borrow.  They do all three.  Governor Quinn hopes to borrow 3.2 billion to fund pensions.   Guess who repays?  No wonder there is cynicism about government.  
I’m sorry- I am crabby when sleep deprived.  But bear with me and follow this story for the next few days.  We need a little righteous indignation.  Do we have the attention span for reform?  

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Tags: Illinois pensions

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