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Death by sweetener

Tuesday, March 09, 2010
Chicago Tribune
by Chicago Tribune editorial staff

Back in November, we added a dark new dimension — a number somewhere "north of $7,000" — to the discussion of how badly your state lawmakers have buried this state's pension system in debt. That 7 grand is the amount of unfunded pension liabilities that may confront you and every one of Illinois' 12.9 million citizens by the end of June.

If you add up all the overpromising and overborrowing and failures to fully fund state pensions, you get a total approaching $95 billion. Dividing that amount by the state's population puts your personal state pension debt … north of $7,000. Every person in your family, the baby included? Another $7,000 apiece. Your every neighbor? Every co-worker? You could have everyone send $7,000 now, in care of a state legislator who represents you. He or she can collect the rest when the final number gets calculated in June.

Be sure you keep that north-of-$7,000 in mind Wednesday if Gov. Pat Quinn proposes anything short of major pension reforms. Team Quinn has signaled that he'll try more of the Illinois trickery that keeps driving your personal pension debt further to the north.

But that's just your state pension indebtedness. You didn't think you were finished, did you? What about all the local and regional governmental bodies that promise pensions?

On Monday the Civic Federation of Chicago delivered the miserable news you might have expected: Given the unfunded obligations totaling $18.5 billion at 10 big Chicago-area pension funds, every Chicagoan is on the hook for another $5,821 in unfunded promises to public-sector workers. Ten years ago, that number was $1,189 — barely one-fifth of what it is today.

Here's an especially maddening way to look at this gross overcommitment of taxpayer dollars: During the decade that ended in fiscal 2008, the Civic Federation says, pension pledges at these 10 governmental bodies grew by 68.9 percent. In the same years, the funding of all those pension promises grew by only 26.4 percent.

Now you know why each Chicagoan's pension debt shot to $5,821 so fast.

Note, though, that you don't have to live in the city to get dinged by some of the liabilities in the Civic Federation report. Four of the 10 funds do cover City of Chicago workers (police, fire, laborers and others). The Chicago Park District, Chicago Transit Authority and Chicago Public Schools are also on the list. But so are Cook County, the Cook County Forest Preserve District and the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District. So if you're a Cook suburbanite, you could have those final three to worry about, plus whatever obligations face your municipal government. Some suburban officials rightly complain that the legislature sweetens pensions and the locals have to pick up the cost.

You can find the full report at CivicFed.org. Live in a collar county? We hope you and your local governments are in better shape.

Monday's report offers only the latest examples of how government officials have mortgaged the future of Illinois by awarding pension sweeteners that taxpayers simply cannot afford.

The report offers numerous proposed solutions — all of them smart, all of them likely to be opposed by public employee unions and many legislators. In December, the Tribune's John Keilman reported on a particularly insidious variant: public safety pension payouts that state lawmakers impose on municipalities. Did you know that Illinois police and firefighters can receive a full pension — 75 percent of pay — as early as age 50? And "pay" is determined by their final day of service, not an average of their last few years' salaries?

Yes, lots of Illinois public employees have received lots of pension sweeteners. The question now is whether state lawmakers and local officials will take some sugar off the table.



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