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Pension ‘fix’ only a prelude to higher taxes

Imperfect bill a step in the wrong direction

Published: Thursday, Dec. 5, 2013 1:15 a.m. CDT

SPRINGFIELD – On Tuesday, the Illinois General Assembly passed a measure that its leaders contend will solve the state’s pension crisis.

If only it would.

The reality is it likely lays the groundwork for future tax hikes and does little to solve the state’s fiscal woes.

Mind you, Illinois has the worst-funded state pension system in the nation, the worst credit rating in the country, and it is paying its bills months late.

In short, Illinois is a fiscal basket case.

Such a situation demands strong medicine.

Instead, what we got was a placebo treatment – a sugar pill disguised as a potent remedy.

At the end of the day, the savings from this bill mainly comes in two forms: gradually raising government workers’ retirement age, and lowering cost-of-living adjustments, or COLAs, for retirees.

That’s it, folks.

Union bosses are already calling those moves onerous.

The reality is, it is too little, far too late.

Under the legislation that Gov. Pat Quinn says he will sign, government workers will still be retiring in their 50s for many years to come. And they will still be receiving COLAs in their retirement, while most of the rest of us can look forward to retiring in our mid-60s and not receiving a dime in COLA money from our private retirement plans.

And the burden of funding government workers’ early and generous retirements falls on the shoulders of those of us with private retirement plans.

Three years ago, lawmakers passed a temporary 67 percent income tax increase that is slated to partially sunset in a year and a half.

The money was supposed to go toward helping the state pay its bills and bring its pension systems back toward solvency.

But the state pension systems are at their worst level of funding ever.

And that’s despite the state taking in more than $7.5 billion a year as a result of the tax hike.

Spending went up after the tax hike.

And even with legislative leaders’ optimistic projections, this pension “reform” bill would save the state at most $1.5 billion a year, according to Crain’s Chicago Business.

So even if those rosy projections were to become reality, those same legislative leaders would have to come up with more than $3 billion a year in savings elsewhere to ensure the income tax hike partially sunsets as promised.

Come 2015, I can already hear the politicians explaining away making the tax hike permanent: “Well, we tried pension reform, and it just wasn’t enough. …”

That’s right, it’s not nearly enough.

The savings, to be blunt, are picayune in comparison to the pension system’s overall fiscal woes.

And the promises this new bill makes are steps in the wrong direction.

For example, it empowers the pension systems to sue the state if they aren’t allocated as much money as they think they need.

That’s a risky proposition for the state’s taxpayers.

Illinois’ five state-run pension systems invest in stocks, bonds, real estate, and other volatile securities. Some of those investments pan out, while others don’t.

But guess what: under this plan, if those investments go south, the pension funds can just sue the state and make up the difference.

Does anyone guarantee your 401(k) that way?

I didn’t think so.

But guess what: you, the taxpayer, will be guaranteeing someone else’s pension that way.

Under the bill, pension funding will take a higher priority than public safety, education, and any other government program. Only paying government bonds will take priority over making pension payments.

I must have missed that day in junior high civics, where we learned that the primary purpose of government is to pay debt and provide for employee pensions.

During Tuesday’s debates, lawmaker after lawmaker said, “This bill isn’t perfect, but …”

They approved the measure; legislators wanted to do something, anything, to address this overwhelming problem.

I wish their actions would solve the problem.

But there is little doubt in my mind that future legislators will be addressing even worse pension crises because this legislation didn’t do nearly enough.

The people of Illinois deserve better.

Note to readers: Scott Reeder’s column is underwritten by the Illinois Policy Institute.

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