State's pension-debt crisis lingers as solutions seem to remain elusive
Illinois' public pension crisis has been bumped out of the headlines by the Nov. 8 presidential election and other attention-grabbers, but the crisis hasn't gone away, the vice president of a Chicago-based conservative think tank said in a recent article.
"Ignoring the problem won’t make it go away," Ted Dabrowski, vice president of policy at the Illinois Policy Institute said in an article published on the institute's website. "In 2015, Illinois’ state pension debt reached a record $111 billion," Dabrowski said in the article. "Government-worker pensions already consume one-fourth of the state’s budget, and every day Illinois goes without a solution to its pension crisis, the state’s pension debt grows by over $20 million."
There is only one place from which that money can come, Dabrowski said.
"The state’s pension crisis threatens to burden taxpayers with massive, ever-escalating taxes to bail out a system that is simply not sustainable," Dabrowski said.
The state's public pension problems, the worst in the nation according to Bloomberg News, are not new. By fiscal 2014, Illinois' pension shortfall was more than $100 billion, and partisan bickering in Springfield hasn't yielded any improvement.
"Some scandal sagas unfold in litanies of detail," the Tribune editorial said. "Factual dots of who, what, when and where create a linear narrative. Other times, we have to absorb decades of dereliction to understand a debacle, such as how this state's political class devastated Illinois' public finances. The enormous debt and pension crises now menacing taxpayers didn't erupt spontaneously, like unexpected tornadoes roaring out of a blue sky."
Dabrowski also pinned the blame on Illinois politicians.
For all but a few years since 1975, Democrats, under the leadership of House Speaker Mike Madigan (D-Chicago), have controlled the state's House of Representatives and have held onto a majority in the state Senate for nearly as long. Many have attributed the reign of Madigan’s Democrats to gerrymandering, but recent ballot initiatives to place the job of creating legislative districts in the hands of an independent body that received broad support from Illinois voters, such as this year’s Independent Map Amendment, have been successfully struck down in the courts with the aid of Democratic Party-linked lawyers and a Democrat majority on the Illinois Supreme Court.
"While the teachers, state employees, university workers, judges and lawmakers of the state’s five pension systems have done nothing wrong in receiving such benefits, it’s clear that politicians have made promises they can’t keep — and that Illinois taxpayers cannot afford to fund," Dabrowski said.
The Tribune editorial hinted at retribution.
"If only the pols who designed Illinois' downfall would say, 'Our fault. We knew better. We'll resign in disgrace,'" the editorial said. "Say, do you plan to vote Nov. 8?"
And yet it is state politicians who are expected to do something about Illinois' debt and pension crisis. Last spring, former Illinois state Rep. Ron Sandack, a Republican from Downers Grove, called for the state to declare bankruptcy.
Dabrowski suggested less dire steps to address these problems.
"Illinois needs to begin moving away from its broken pension systems — starting by moving new government workers to 401(k)-style plans and giving existing workers the option to have their own self-managed accounts," Dabrowski said. "Doing that, in addition to enacting a constitutional amendment allowing Illinois to reform pension benefits going forward, is an important first step in fixing Illinois’ government-worker pensions."