By Dan Haley
Anyone want to read about pensions? Didn't think so. It is one of those things that makes you kind of queasy. Foreclosures. That's another one. You know they're out there. Maybe on your own block. But you can't fix them. So you just wait for them to do you collateral damage.
The new issue of dread is student loans. The number owed nationally doesn't compute in our puny brains. Then you read the New York Times piece about the kid who is just graduating from a no-name school with a pretty worthless degree in marketing and she owes $120,000, has a monthly loan nut of $900 and is living at home and working two restaurant jobs to support her loans. Positively queasy.
But back to pensions. I'm confident the state legislature is going to fix this whole problem. Could be any day now. Meanwhile this little essay is focused on proving my thesis that there is lots of blame here.
The state runs the teacher retirement system — and into the ground is the likely destination. Teachers pay in dutifully. The state has not paid in regularly over the years. Beyond that there are many factors. But here's one. School districts across the state, including the three which serve our own little corner of heaven, have been screwing the system for years. During the entire misbegotten early retirement era — we'll save money by getting rid of the old, better paid teachers! — districts have been sweetening retirement packages by jolting salaries in the final years of employment. Pensions are based on the last years of salary before retirement. But the school districts actively, unconscionably did not care because they weren't paying the pensions. The state was.
Now our almost very own Gov. Pat Quinn is suggesting shifting some or all of the teacher pension costs back to the districts so they have to act more responsibly. Of course, this is the ultimate political punt and stunt. The state wasn't responsible when it didn't pay into the pension. The local schools were hastening the mayhem when they ratcheted late-inning salaries.
Now the reverse. Illinois has hundreds and hundreds of local pension boards which oversee the retirements of, among others, police and firefighters. Why every little burg has its own pension boards paying out fees to actuaries and financial advisors is an inexcusable excess.
But if you are of the theory that it makes more sense because it, at least, reflects local control of our own pensions, then you'd be Illinois-stupid. Yes, we have local officials and local employees on these pension boards. But they are often hamstrung following state mandates that require, for example, that cops and firefighters can retire at absurdly early ages.
So you've got the local school districts messing with the state's teacher retirement system and running up the payouts. And you've got the state imposing ridiculous mandates on the supposedly locally controlled pension boards.
Pat Quinn, who has, at last, discovered that he is governor, is making reasonable noises. Rahm Emanual, mayor of the next town over, actually went to Springfield last week to talk good sense on pensions and deliver replacement spines to local state reps and senators. David Pope has been right on this issue for a long while. A few years ago he helped nix an added firefighter, not because the village didn't need the help, but because Pope recognized the giant-sized pension obligation the newbie represented.
The pension problem is real. There is blame to go around. So the challenge is to find actual solutions — and we need a series of solutions — that meet commitments already made, scale back promises that aren't constitutionally locked-in, reduce future obligations, and allow taxpayers to survive as part of the middle class and government to fund current programs beyond just pensions.
Any day now.