Illinois' pension crisis: 'Catastrophic' failures, big perks, retiree worries
"I sometimes wonder whether people actually understood the math.”
There are many paths to failure. But to understand how Illinois' pension system became the worst in the nation, it's instructive to look at what happened 10 years ago in the final, hectic days of the annual state legislative session in Springfield.
A dense, 78-page bill aimed in part at curbing pension abuses in downstate and suburban school systems landed in lawmakers' laps two days before their scheduled May adjournment. One sponsor called it the first “meaningful” reform in 40 years, a reversal of “decades of neglect and bad decisions.” Another predicted that it could save the state up to $35 billion.
But in addition to true reform, the bill later signed by Gov. Rod Blagojevich allowed the state to skip half its pension payments for two years and to stretch out some expenses approved under the previous governor, George Ryan. No one mentioned those could cost $6.8 billion. The math hadn't been done.
In fact, reliable calculations weren't completed for two months. Democrats in the Legislature, eager to pass a budget before their summer began, muzzled debate with a stopwatch, ignored the incomplete calculations and jammed the pension bill through anyway.
In retrospect, Senate Bill 27 was no cure-all. It also was no exception.
For more than a quarter-century, governors and state legislators, Republicans and Democrats alike, made a series of financially toxic moves in the pension systems for state employees and public school teachers. Proposals to fix the perennially underfunded pensions were based on botched calculations—or no calculations at all—and were driven by misguided rationales that weren't fully vetted. Everyone was to blame, yet few accepted responsibility. Even the public-sector unions that stood to lose the most sometimes embraced those choices.