Pension Reform in Illinois: Why is everyone cheering?

Posted by Fred Giertz on Apr 14, 2010

Filed Under (Retirement Policy)


What passes for pension reform in Illinois came with lightening speed in late March. The bill (SB 1946) appeared suddenly and was approved by substantial bi-partisan majorities in barely two days and enthusiastically signed by Gov. Pat Quinn. After some preliminary actions on March 23, the Illinois House and Senate took 71 separate actions on March 24, leading to the final approval of the bill.                  

The bill was widely hailed in the editorial pages of newspapers in the state as well as the Wall Street Journal and by politicians as an important step toward addressing the state’s massive budget shortfall by dealing with the pension piece of the problem – the one that has come to symbolize the cause of and solution to the state’s fiscal woes.

Unfortunately, the pension reform process was seriously flawed on procedural grounds. In addition, the new legislation falls far short of effectively dealing with pension funding problems, not to mention the larger state budget issue. 

In a recent News-Gazette commentary, State Sen. Mike Frerichs, D-Champaign, heralded a new day of openness and transparency in the General Assembly. His Taxpayer Transparency Act (SB 3622), approved by the Senate, would “put an end to the practice of last-minute, secret budgets in Illinois.”   Further, it will mandate “that general revenue spending proposals must be available for public review for four days prior to the General Assembly taking a vote.” 

Overcome by this spirit of openness, the Senate passed pension legislation that few members, not to mention citizens, understood. By comparison, the recent national health care debate was a model of openness and propriety. In fact, two weeks after the legislation was approved, no one in Springfield could give a definitive answer to a number of key features of the bill. There were no significant hearings on the legislation, no real input from the state’s pension systems, and no competent actuarial study before the bill was approved. 

It is surprising how the editorial writers and commentators bought into the reform idea. In a Chicago Tribune commentary, Abner Mikva, an icon of Illinois politics, stated: “Gov. Quinn and the legislature deserve a lot of credit for a pension reform that is a substantial piece of any meaningful fiscal restraint program. More than a faint praise, they deserve a loud hurrah.” It is disappointing that the former distinguished judge, noted for his advocacy of proper and open procedures in politics, would be cheering what transpired in Springfield. 

The faulty process might be forgiven if the results effectively addressed the pension problem.  Instead, the new bill can be viewed as business as usual similar to the so-called reforms of 2003 and 2005, where purported savings to be realized far in the future became the excuse for reduced current funding efforts. 

The pension bill imposes a new dramatically lower second tier by severely limiting pension coverage and pension benefits for new employees. This will differentially impact public school teachers and public higher education employees who are not covered by social security. New retirement benefits will only be partially indexed for inflation, and these adjustments will not be compounded. The result is that a retiree would lose around 28 percent in purchasing power during a 20-year retirement with 3 percent inflation and 50 percent with 6 percent inflation. 

To save state funds, pension benefits for new employees will be based on a fraction of the social security earnings ceiling – currently $106,800 per year regardless of the actual employee’s salary. This too will only be partially adjusted for inflation, which will cause the earnings ceiling for a new employee working 30 years to fall to 64 percent of the social security ceiling with 3 percent inflation and to 42 percent with 6 percent inflation. 

These are only two of several punitive measures that will reduce future pension benefits. The fallacy of this approach is that it assumes that there will be no adjustment necessary in the hiring costs for new employees who are offered drastically reduced benefits compared to current employees. Can new, highly skilled employees be hired with such meager benefits? This can only be done by paying higher salaries to compensate for the lower benefits or through the establishment of supplementary retirement systems to make up for the deficiency. What the state saves in lower pension costs will be partially offset by higher wages and new supplementary benefit costs. 

Rather than using the new pension savings as a means of setting the state on a path to solvency, the new pension bill is used as an excuse for the state to continue its reckless ways by reducing scheduled pensions contributions. What is overlooked in this discussion is that the budget problems facing the state are really the result of excess spending over several decades where deficits have been partially funded by shorting the state’s pension systems. For example, had the state made timely payments (based on actuarial costs of slightly more than 10 percent of payrolls) to the State Universities Retirement System, SURS would be fully funded with assets of around 106 percent of liabilities rather than its actual level of around 50 percent. 

No reasonable observer can deny that pension reform as well as a careful evaluation of non-pension post-retirement benefits such as health insurance needs to be part of a general solution to the state fiscal mess. However, these changes must be accompanied by greater fiscal discipline as evidenced by spending austerity and enhanced revenues. Unfortunately, the General Assembly appears to view its version of pension reform as a substitute for such discipline.

 Giertz is professor of economics at the University of Illinois and an elected member of the State Universities Retirement System Board of Trustees. The views expressed here are his and not necessarily those of these institutions.


2 Responses to “Pension Reform in Illinois: Why is everyone cheering?”

  • Retired says:

    Well, what do we expect. The only “test” required to be a legislator is that you be able to lie sufficiently well to a large number of people in order to get elected. Most of them likely think they did a good job……

  • Jim says:

    Well-stated. The “blame the victim” mentality in Springfield is a serious problem. After “stealing” from SURS et al for decades, the solution is to penalize those from whom the state already stole billions. I suppose that’s IL political wisdom. If everyone covered by a state pension system would unite against this travesty, we have the numbers to accomplish something. Is that too big and IF?