Monday 24th June 2019

Not many options to fix Illinois’ worst in the nation pension problem

Experts: Not many options to fix Illinois’ worst in the nation pension problem

FILE - Dan Hankiewicz, Kent Redfield, Dick Ingram 11-17-17
Left to right: Dan Hankiewicz, COGFA pension manager; Kent Redfield, UIS politics professor; and Dick Ingram, executive director of the Teachers’ Retirement System, at a presentation in Springfield on November 17, 2017.

Greg Bishop | Illinois News Network


Illinois has the worst-funded public sector pensions in the country and those who know the numbers well say there’s not much that can be done to fix it.

During a panel discussion with the Citizens Club of Springfield Friday, Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability Pension Manager Dan Hankiewicz, longtime political observer and University of Illinois Professor Emeritus Kent Redfield, and Teacher Retirement System Executive Director Dick Ingram talked about the state’s massive pension problem.

Hankiewicz said the state’s problem is “staggering” with a $130 billion unfunded pension liability and just 40 percent funded.

Among the problems is Tier I employees hired before 2010 get 3 percent compounded increases every year of retirement. A Tier II system that lawmakers passed several years ago gives employees lesser benefits in retirement, but that’s not enough to solve the woefully underfunded systems.

Teacher Retirement System Executive Director Richard Ingram said proposed Tier III with lesser benefits won’t help much.

“It’s a little extra money going into the pot for the Tier I unfunded from the school districts, but it’s totally insignificant in the context to the larger problem,” Ingram said.

Tier III passed the legislature this year, but the pension systems are still waiting on follow-up legislation to be able to implement the deal moving forward, Ingram said.

Hankiewicz expects to see another pension plan resurface at the statehouse.

“The [Senate President John] Cullerton plan is a way to sort of put salary increases on the table and use that as a bargaining chip for future [Cost of Living Adjustments] under the premise that salary increases are not constitutionally protected,” Hankiewicz said.

That measure passed the Senate this year, but wasn’t brought up in the House. Gov. Bruce Rauner has indicated he’d sign the so-called consideration model if it were to ever reach his desk. Under Cullerton’s consideration model, state workers would have to choose between freezing their salaries that count toward their pensions and receiving a smaller cost-of-living adjustment in retirement.

Redfield and many others expect that idea to be challenged in the courts.

“It’s going to get an injunction,” Redfield said. “You’re going to get a couple of years where you can’t enforce it. So it’s going to do nothing for next year’s budget and the following year because you can’t count savings in balancing the budget that aren’t real.”

Another option would be to change the state constitution’s pension protection clause to lower expensive pension benefits, but Redfield said that would also be challenged in the courts.

“The federal constitution says states cannot impair contracts,” Redfield said, “so that gets you into a federal lawsuit.”

Hankiewicz said the system won’t ever go bankrupt on paper because of a 1995 state law that requires annual payments to get to 90 percent funded ratio by 2045.

“So long as the state makes those contributions and so long as the systems meet their investment returns and other actuarial assumptions, we get there on paper,” Hankiewicz said. “The question is whether or not the legislature wishes to contribute that amount because that’s about 20 cents of every General Revenue Fund dollar. It’s crowding out resources that could be used for education, for human services, for other things.”

Making those payments, however, will be much easier said than done for lawmakers. Due to the Edgar Ramp passed in 1994, which was backed by then-Gov. Jim Edgar, payments into the pension funds are required to grow exponentially until 2044. The plan has been derided by some as a way for state lawmakers in the 1990s to push the pension problem off  toward then-future lawmakers.

Illinois’ pension contribution for the current fiscal year is $7 billion. That eats up the entirety of the $5 billion income tax increase lawmakers imposed on taxpayers over the governor’s veto this summer.

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