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Illinois Claws At Mountain Of Unfunded Pension Liability

Jan 5, 2013
Originally published on January 5, 2013 1:45 pm

Illinois' pension-fund shortfall is by far the largest in the nation, and the clock is ticking for the state's governor and lawmakers to tackle the problem before a new Legislature is sworn in next week. So far, their proposals have stoked frustration from state employees and retirees.

Simply put, Illinois' unfunded pension liability is massive. Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn says the $96 billion of liability has been accumulating for decades, with the state's pension problems dating back at least 70 years.

"There have been 12 governors, 13 speakers of the House and 13 presidents of the Senate that have come and gone, and the issue has kind of confounded our predecessors," he says.

The State's Share

Over those many years, Illinois' teachers, state troopers, university professors and other state employees have been paying their share, contributing about 8 to 12 percent out of every paycheck to their pension funds. But the state hasn't.

Illinois' governors and lawmakers have frequently shortchanged the pension systems. They've even skipped some pension payments altogether so they could more freely spend on things more popular with the voters, such as schools, highways, health care and prisons.

The result, says Quinn, is a huge pension shortfall that is growing bigger by the day.

"Our liability every day goes up by $17 million, so we've got to deal with this," he says.

Squeezy The Pension Python

Quinn says without changes, the state's pension payment next fiscal year will be quadruple what it was just five years ago. That would leave a lot less money for education, hospitals, health care and roads — a point the governor's office drives home in an informational video.

The video shows a cartoon snake — Squeezy the Pension Python — squeezing the state Capitol. The tactic amuses some, but has been mocked by others, including some legislators.

Meanwhile, Illinois' credit rating continues to drop and, according to Moody's Investors Service, is now the lowest among all 50 states.

Laurence Msall, president of the Chicago-based budget watchdog group The Civic Federation, says time is running out.

"The state is in a financial crisis. The state needs to act. The longer it waits, the more expensive it gets, and the more difficult it will be to stabilize the state," he says.

If the Legislature doesn't act soon, Msall says, Illinois' pension funds could eventually run out of money.

Public Employees Fight Back

Illinois teachers, state employees and retirees are outraged. Hundreds of them rallied at the state Capitol this week to protest not just the underfunding of their pensions, but also the pending legislation that tries to fix the problem by — in part — reducing their pension benefits.

"There is an assault on our retirement security," says Henry Bayer, who heads the union representing most Illinois state employees.

He says the politicians haven't lived up to their promises.

"Look, we're willing to work toward a solution to the problem, but we are not willing to have the burden of their past failures put on our backs," he says.

Bayer warns any changes will likely be challenged in court, as the Illinois Constitution prohibits pension benefits from being diminished.

But a tax increase to shore up the pension funds isn't likely because Illinois just raised its income tax two years ago.

Quinn and legislative leaders will be meeting over the weekend in a race to broker a pension compromise before the Legislature's lame-duck session ends and new lawmakers are sworn in on Wednesday.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

Jobless people are struggling to pay their bills, Congress is debating debt and deficit, but the state of Illinois appears to be careening towards its own fiscal cliff. Illinois has a pension fund shortfall of nearly $100 billion - by far, the biggest pension shortfall in the nation. And as NPR's David Schaper reports from Chicago, the clock is ticking for the state's governor and lawmakers to approve pension reforms before a new legislature is sworn in next week.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: Simply put, Illinois's unfunded pension liability is just massive.

GOVERNOR PAT QUINN: Well, it's 96-billion dollars of liability and that's been accumulated over many, many years.

SCHAPER: Illinois democratic Governor Pat Quinn says his state's pension problems date back at least 70 years.

QUINN: And there have been 12 governors, 13 speakers of the House, and 13 presidents of the Senate that have come and gone and the issue has kind of confounded our predecessors.

SCHAPER: Over those many years, Illinois' teachers, state troopers, university professors and other state employees have been paying their fair share, contributing about 8 to 12 percent of their salaries out of every paycheck to their pension funds. But the state hasn't. Illinois's governors and lawmakers have frequently shortchanged the pension systems and they've even skipped some pension payments altogether so that they could more freely spend on things more popular with the voters, such as schools, highways, health care and prisons. The result, says Governor Quinn, is this huge pension shortfall that is growing bigger by the day.

QUINN: Our liability every day goes up by $17 million. So, you know, we've got to deal with this.

SCHAPER: Quinn says without changes the state's pension payment next fiscal year will be quadruple what it was just five years ago. That leaves a lot less money for education, hospitals, health care and roads, a point the governor's office drives home in an informational video.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

QUINN: The problem is the squeeze.

SCHAPER: The video shows a cartoon snake - Squeezy, the Pension Python - squeezing the state capitol. It's a tactic that amuses some, but has also been mocked by others, including some legislators. Meantime, Illinois's credit rating continues to drop and according to Moody's, is now the lowest among all 50 states. Lawrence Msall of a Chicago-based budget watchdog group called the Civic Federation says time is running out.

LAWRENCE MSALL: The state is in a financial crisis. The state needs to act. The longer it waits, the more expensive it gets and the more difficult it will be to stabilize the state.

SCHAPER: Msall says if the legislature doesn't act soon, Illinois's pension funds could eventually run out of money.

GROUP OF ILLINOIS TEACHERS: (Chanting) Whose pension? Our pension. Whose pension? Our pension.

SCHAPER: Illinois teachers, state employees and retirees are outraged.

TEACHERS: (Chanting) Our pension. Our pension...

SCHAPER: Hundreds of them rallied in the state capitol this week to protest not just the under-funding of their pensions but also pending legislation that tries to fix the problem, by in part, reducing their pension benefits.

HENRY BAYER: There is an assault on our retirement security.

SCHAPER: Henry Bayer heads up the union representing most Illinois state employees, and he says the politicians haven't lived up to their promises.

BAYER: Look, we're willing to work toward a solution to the problem but we are not willing to have the burden of their past failures put on our backs.

SCHAPER: Bayer warns that any changes to benefits will likely be challenged in court, as Illinois's constitution prohibits pension benefits from being diminished. But a tax increase to shore up the pension funds isn't likely because Illinois just raised its income tax two years ago. Governor Quinn and legislative leaders will be meeting over the weekend in a race to broker a pension compromise before the Illinois legislature's lame-duck session ends and a new legislature is sworn in on Wednesday. David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.