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National Editorial & Columnists

Pension debt is a real crisis

Senate leader notwithstanding, taxpayers want problem solved

It was worrisome [last] week to hear Senate President John Cullerton characterize Illinois’ staggering pension problem as something less than a crisis.

Speaking with WGN Radio in Chicago on Sunday, Cullerton, a Democrat, said the shortfall is not an imminent crisis and that some business interests want to make it seem that way because they want lower income taxes.

Cullerton is partly correct, and we know there are those who agree with his general sentiment. Illinois’ pension crisis is not as dire as the city of Chicago’s, and, no, the ink is not drying on Illinois’ bankruptcy papers (because Illinois technically can’t declare bankruptcy).

But is that where we’re drawing the line on deciding what’s a crisis – by seeing just how close the state can get to insolvency and comparing its problems to Chicago’s?

In a lot of people’s estimation, the state hit the crisis level some time ago when it became impossible to juggle outstanding bills and the pension debt.

Unless the Legislature’s pension reform conference committee presents a workable plan to lawmakers soon, the situation will continue to unfold and worsen.

The taxpayers, bond houses, and newspaper editorial pages recognize the gravity of the matter. So do the vendors, service providers and school districts that go unpaid for months at a time because the state spends so much of its money covering its pension debt.

It’s tough to hear any Illinois lawmaker characterize the state’s nearly $100 billion unfunded pension liability as anything but a crisis. But in the end, we don’t need semantics; we need solutions.

While legislators continue hammering out the details, let’s remember one thing: Illinois taxpayers – the ones stuck dealing with a pension debt that grows by $5 million every day, according to Gov. Pat Quinn’s office – are the ones who get to decide what is or isn’t a crisis in this state.

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