BGA panel: State’s pension problems now a priority

Reps say work on solutions could begin when legislators return to Springfield next week.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

When Illinois lawmakers return to Springfield next Tuesday, they’ll have a tall order on their hands: fixing a state employee pension system that’s up to its knees in obligations that the state can’t easily pay.

A House committee tasked with looking for solutions has been meeting in Chicago and at the statehouse for several weeks. They’re trying to shore up the system that, by most accounts, is under-funded to the tune of $80 billion.

Illinois Legislators have sidestepped the problem for years, but several who attended a panel Monday evening said the time for talking is at its end. State Representative Darlene Senger (R-Naperville) attended the event, which was sponsored by the Better Government Association, a public policy watchdog group.

“We honestly, given particularly this year, have to get something done. That’s the bottom line,” Senger said. “We can go through these back and forth opinions, but we have to get something done. And, you know what, I think we have the tools to do it. I think it’s just a matter of sitting down and figuring out what’s best for the state of Illinois.”

The BGA conducted the panel discussion at Loyola University’s downtown Chicago campus. The group’s president, Andy Shaw, said the public needs to educate itself about the extent of the pension problem.

“Informing them that it’s all of our problems, that just because you’re not a public employee, you have a son or a daughter or a grandson or granddaughter who will not get a proper education if too many of their education dollars have to be diverted to pension costs,” Shaw said.

Most of the four-member panel agreed that all options to fix the problem are on the table: reducing benefits, increasing the retirement age for state employees and holding the line on cost of living adjustments (COLA).

But panel member Henry Bayer, executive director of AFSCME (American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees) Council 31, said he doesn’t support those options.

“If we’re going to address the problem over the long haul, then we’ve got to address the whole problem,” Bayer said. “The basis of the problem was a failure to put in sufficient funds in the past. We want to make sure we put a system in place so that it cannot happen again.”