The state hit its own 'fiscal cliff'

Opinion: Columns

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Mark Finger

One year ago today I wrote to every member of the Illinois Legislature regarding the state's fiscal crisis, pleading for their diligent attention to the matter.

A year later this seemingly intractable problem continues to vex the state's best and brightest; so what can the average citizen possibly do to help push this state away from its fiscal cliff? Like most people I lack the time, energy, and training in law and finance to add anything enlightening to the effort, and it's virtually impossible to come up to speed in an effective way. So, I wrote again to state Senator Don Harmon and state Representative Camille Lilly.

I attended the latest UIC Urban Forum on Dec. 6 and was impressed by how well the opening panel — which included the Lieutenant Governor — grasped the problem. I hope this is a sign that our state government has had its epiphany and will finally put its newly acquired fiscal rectitude at the service of an adequate game plan.

A few articles I've gleaned recently deal with specific remedies. Richard F. Dye, professor at the Institute of Government & Public Affairs, University of Illinois, in "How Can Illinois Improve its Budget" mentions "a lack of transparency in budgeting matters because, in addition to contributing to the budget crisis, incomplete information makes solutions harder to find. Understanding the state's true fiscal situation depends upon how clearly, consistently, and broadly budget information is presented. Addressing transparency problems could make it easier to see the true picture and take meaningful steps toward improvement."

William R. Atwood, executive director, Illinois State Board of Investment, lauds the Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund (IMRF) as a model for the other pension plans:

"IMRF is a model of retirement system success. Contained in the law is critical language authorizing IMRF to enforce payment. Each year, a municipality is informed of next year's employer contribution rate. If the employer fails to remit payment within 90 days, IMRF may lay claim to payments owed by the state to the municipality. The simple existence of these powers to extract payment has resulted in a reliable funding mechanism (rebootillinois.com/?opinion=1061).

Finally, Madeleine Doubek, chief operating officer, Reboot Illinois, presents "Some big advice and inspiration from little Rhode Island" (rebootillinois.com/?opinion=1269):

"Rhode Island Treasurer Gina Raimondo was in Chicago this week spreading a little pension-crisis optimism in appearances sponsored by the Better Government Association. Rhode Island has gained national attention for attempting sweeping reform of their pension system after a crisis very much like the one Illinois faces.

"Rhode Island raised its retirement age for workers other than police and firefighters. It suspended cost-of-living adjustments until the system is up to 80 percent funded. It continued health care coverage for workers, but only from retirement until a worker is Medicare eligible."

As Raimondo put it, "I know, in Illinois, you're going to fix this problem. And when you do, I promise you, you'll be rewarded in the bond market, your budgets will be easier to balance, and the children and the people of this state will benefit. … This pension debt is an anchor holding you back. Cut the anchor, do the right thing, and move forward."

I hope the Illinois Legislature has the courage to do likewise in this state.

As the oft-quoted adage goes, Illinois government has been kicking the can down the road for decades. Now the road ends at a cliff and we're about to lose the whole can. Let your government know you support their best efforts to resolve this crisis.

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