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April 7, 2014

The (Champaign) News-Gazette

Pension angst in Springfield

Our elected officials can run, but they can’t hide from the financial consequences of their bad decisions.

Illinois legislators took a tough vote in December, passing a pension reform package that outraged many public employees, retirees and their union leaders.

That bill now is being challenged in the courts.

Meanwhile last week at the General Assembly in Springfield, it was deja vu all over again - legislators are confronted with controversial pension legislation involving two of Chicago’s four public employee pension systems. Once again, legislators are skittish about passing a bill that could bring political opposition down on them. Once again, top state officials like Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and House Speaker Michael Madigan contend legislators must act immediately to address the problem.

“Why would you want to slow it down? Why would you want to do that? What’s the problem with calling the bill today? What are you concerned about?” Madigan asked a group of reporters who queried him about the fast track the pension bill is on.

That was Madigan’s non-answer to reporters’ question about why legislators should pass a complicated, controversial pension bill just two days after the proposal was unveiled by Mayor Emanuel.

Democratic leaders obviously want to pass the legislation before union leaders and public employees have time to lobby against it. Chicago Democratic House and Senate members sense potential political problems; their legislative leaders do not want them to understand the extent of those problems until after they’ve voted yes.

Try as our public officials might, they can’t escape the consequence of years of bad decisions on public pensions.

The state of Illinois approved generous pension benefits for public employees and allowed them to retire early to collect them. But it neglected to properly fund the pensions, creating an underfunding problem that poses a long-term existential threat. The city of Chicago did the same thing, creating what Mayor Emanuel and others are calling an impending financial crisis. Emanuel’s solution to the problem, one that must be approved by state legislators, is to dramatically increase property taxes as well as boost employee contributions to fund the pensions while reducing benefits, particularly annual cost-of-living increases, to retirees.

Public officials’ first instinct on the public pension problems was to do nothing, and they did it for so long that the financial woes look unsolvable to many. Now they must act, but their options are so distasteful they can hardly stand to do so.

Unfortunately, what’s transpiring in Illinois and Chicago with respect to public pension is becoming more and more common. Our elected officials may have been irresponsible, but they are not alone. Some of the chickens have come home to roost and the rest are on their way.

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