Illinois-stupid on pensions

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By Dan Haley

Editor and Publisher

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.

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Reader Comments

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Firefighters/Police a Necessity from Oak Park  

Posted: May 20th, 2012 9:20 AM

I Think our firefighters and Police do a great job and deserve their pensions. They were promised unusual benefits for an unusual job that work unusual hours 24/7. My daughter just went through Fire Education at her school the other day and raved about meeting the firemen. One of the fire-women even came dressed in uniform as a pink haired clown to play with the kids. My daughter really enjoyed her and wouldn't stop talking about her. These public Servants are priceless!


Posted: May 17th, 2012 8:31 PM

But will he get re elected?

epic lulz  

Posted: May 17th, 2012 8:06 PM

I applaud Quinn for even making the attempt to clean up the mess created by the last 4 governors, when he very well could have kicked the can down the road just like everyone else. And for that, everyone reviles him. Except for we few who appreciate fiscal responsibility.

epic lulz  

Posted: May 17th, 2012 8:04 PM

This comments section nicely illustrates Illinois-stupid: EVERYONE is blaming everyone else, and NO ONE wants to take responsibility. Everyone wants something for nothing, and they all have good reasons why they should get it, but no one wants to pay for it. Until you children grow up, nothing will ever change.


Posted: May 17th, 2012 4:27 PM

@Phil Pittman. But if you wish for a ribbon to be cut or speech to be given - Don Harmon will be there!!! For this he receives a very nice salary and a pension which makes him a charter member of the 1%!. My goodness, even the new Socialist govt of France is taking a pay cut and Harmon simply collects his money and fiddles. Perhaps if he was in the minority party or just a bum in the D party....but he's not - he's #2 to Cullerton in the Senate!?! And OP votes for him every time!!! Fools.

Phil Pittman from Oak Park  

Posted: May 17th, 2012 3:57 PM

I also wondered why WJ's favorite politian, Senator Don Harmon was not mentioned in Dan's editorial. In the WJ (10/20/2010) Harmon stated that the state pensions were adequately funded, as there was no need to worry about future pension and medical bills. In the WJ (1/19/2011)Harmon stated that the tax increase was necessary to eliminate our backlog of unpaid bills. How has this worked out?


Posted: May 17th, 2012 12:54 PM

I'm just happy that we have Don Harmon, Oak Park resident, in Springfield! He's a lieutenant to Cullerton and friend of Madigan's and so I know that this problem will be eliminated in a day or two! I see his name and picture in the paper all the time - giving out money from IL to "worthy" recipients. He's just fantastic and that's why OP overwhelmingly votes for him all the time!!! Can WJ have an interview with him on the subject? And why IL is bankrupt? And what he has done about this?

Brian Slowiak from Oak Park  

Posted: May 17th, 2012 7:45 AM

To Just Askin from RF: The cops and ff's do not pay into SS from their public jobs. The cops and ff's pay into SS from their part time and pre and post employment public sector jobs and are not guaranteed a full SS benefit.Federal elected officials and Federal employees exempted themselves from SS and payn into a private account.

Carol from Oak Park  

Posted: May 17th, 2012 6:28 AM

With regard to teacher pensions, your comment that "the state has not paid in regularly" over the years, which implies that they've only missed a few payments, is bordering on an outright lie. The fact is that the state has reneged on its obligations for decades. If they hadn't, there would be no teacher pension crisis. To pretend that a handful of inflated pensions is the source of the problem is utter mendacity. Shame on you.

SHAME on you public employees   

Posted: May 16th, 2012 10:35 PM

Shame on you teachers, firefighters and police. shame on you for dedicating 20 plus years of your life to helping our society and contributing into your own retirement plans your entire career then expecting others to uphold their end of the deal. oh and try to be more careful helping us, your workers comp claims are adding up faster now that the staffing levels are to low.

Just Askin' from RF  

Posted: May 16th, 2012 9:26 PM

I find it disingenuous that you would slam cops, ff's & teachers pension benefits without telling the whole story. For instance, you don't mention that they pay full SS taxes but are not eligible for full SS benefits because of their pensions. To add insult to injury you laud Quinn & Rahm for "talking sense" about pensions. IL pols are eligible for 80% of their pay at age 50 after 20 years service, a far better deal than any cop, ff, or teacher. Why haven't we read about

Just Sayin'  

Posted: May 16th, 2012 4:15 PM

As it stands now there is little reason for cops/ff's to stay after turning 55. Often in police work one encounters a muscled 21 year old who wants only to fight the police & cannot be talked out of it. That & similar reasons are why police are allowed to retire relatively early. You don't have the strength, break easier, & heal slower if at all at 60. Ditto firefighters forcing in doors & pulling/carrying equipment while wearing their bunker gear. In OP, no paid insurance after retiring.

The Uneducated Attack on Pensions  

Posted: May 16th, 2012 9:32 AM

I agree that penson reform needs to be done, however your comment "that cops and firefighters can retire at absurdly early ages" is problematic. Those cops and firefighters tend to die earlier than those that work cushy jobs, such as sitting in an office throwing typwritten harpoons at others.Even those cops and firefighters that try to take care of themselves die earlier.Public Safety employment kills your body faster than other jobs.Lets not forget they do not get social security either.

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