The clock is ticking for meaningful pension reform in Illinois

May 25, 2011

Published at Champion News, May 25, 2011

Pensions of teacher and public employees are hot topics not only in Springfield, but in state capitals all over the country. Why? Because unsustainable, unfunded pension systems are bankrupting states.

According to a report released on April 25 by The Pew Center on the States, a Washington, D.C. think tank, Illinois ranks last place among states in putting away enough money for benefits promised to its employees in retirement.  

Illinois legislators have been derelict in failing to fund the state pension funds over the years as mandated by the state’s Constitution. The result: Illinois has an $85 billion pension shortfall. Of that figure $44 billion of the shortfall is in the Teachers’ Retirement System pension fund. 

With the introduction of a major piece of reform legislation in Springfield, HB 140 and the traction it is receiving, public service unions have launched a campaign to portray members as hard-working victims of politicians who want to cover their mistakes by slashing pension. 

Why does hearing an ad presently being sponsored by unions representing teachers bring displeasure to me, even as a former music teacher? Foremost is the absurdity of what the ad portends in light of HB 149.  The legislation would not take away full pension benefits already earned by retirees, but would give teachers the following three options:    

  1. Increase contributions.
  2. Keep current contributions levels in place and work more years for a less open-ended package.
  3. Chose a 4010 (k) -style defined contributions plan with the state offering a 6% matching contribution.

The ad further states that teachers contribute 10% of their yearly earnings, never missing a payment, into their Teachers’ Retirement System (The figure mandated is really 9.4% and only 7.5% is used to fund pension benefits.).

Here is the catch: Unions have been successful, as in my own Lake Forest Districts #67 and #115, of getting contracts that put the burden of TRS contributions completely or mostly on the local school district. Throughout Illinois two-thirds of all educators contribute less than 1% of their pay to TRS.  

It is true that teachers are not entitled to Social Security. Even so, it is disingenuous to compare teacher pension benefits to benefits paid to SS recipients.

Although most teachers don’t understand the complexity of the TRS, they are knowledgeable about how their pensions are formulated: 75% of the average of the highest four years in their last ten years of teaching.  

In my local Lake Forest District #115, eighty nine out of 169 full time and part-time administrators and teachers employed are earning more than $100,000 in the current school year and another twenty-one are earning salaries in the range of $90,000 to $100,000. Such high salaries are the norm and not an anomaly.

As it is not uncommon for salaries to be inflated as teachers near the end of their teaching careers, it is evident that Lake Forest High School teachers will reap sizable pensions upon retiring. Additionally they will receive an automatic yearly 3% cost of living adjustment and will pay no taxes on their pensions. All this after just 25 years of work!

The superintendent of Lake Forest Districts #115 and #67, Dr. Harry Griffith, upon his retirement in June of 2012 will be receiving a pension even more grandiose to sustain him in his sunset years: $300,000 a year from the Teacher Retirement System in Illinois with guaranteed increases of 3% per year, plus a lavish annuity of hundreds of thousand of dollars purchased by Lake Forest School Districts #67 and #115 to augment his already substantial TRS retirement income. 

In the private sector, a person starting his career after college must work for 44 years to receive full Social Security at age 66, SS benefits are taxed, and there is no guarantee that cost of living increases (COLA) will be awarded every year.

It is not my intent to place the blame for the massive amount of unfunded pension debt accrued by Illinois directly on teachers and public service employees. Equal blame rests of state legislators who turned pension funds into a Ponzi scheme by spending the money paid into TRS by its members. 

Nevertheless, teachers and public employees’ demands make them their own worst enemies. They retire too early, and they don’t contribute enough into their retirement funds to account for their generous lifetime retirement benefits.

HB 149, sponsored by Rep. Tom Cross (R-Oswego) and being pushed by the Republican leadership, must be debated on its merits. Its weaknesses must be identified and fixed. Teacher and public union employees must also stop demanding benefits that can no longer be sustained. 

It is way past time for meaningful pension reform to take place in Illinois. A common sense approach to the $85 billion in unfunded pension is not too much to ask of either unions or legislators. There must be a combined effort to find a solution that will last into the next century. 

Only then will future generations of Illinoisans have the possibility of inheriting a state that will rank near the top in economic outlook, GDP growth, personal income growth, and employment growth, instead of near its present bottom-of-the-barrel state status.

Time is running out. Will reform happen before the May 31st adjournment of the General Assembly? Or will another session pass leaving the state with the nation’s most under-funded state pension system? 

Call your elected IL representatives and demand that they support HB 149! 

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