Editorial: Quinn finally admits it: Time for a pension fix

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Gov. Pat Quinn this week finally found his voice on the most important issue facing the state of Illinois: a gargantuan pension bill that threatens to gobble up dollars needed to finance the most basic of state services — schools, prison guards, state troopers, universities, human services and more.

Quinn on Tuesday pledged to reform the public employee pension system “once and for all.”

“This is a major mountain to climb this year and I’m willing to lead the expedition,” Quinn said. He is setting up a pension working group to produce a bill that can pass this spring. This is a tall but vital order as every legislative seat is up for grabs this year.

It’s also long overdue. We’ll now see if Quinn’s actions are as bold as his words.

Illinois’ pension bill is $85 billion, so large that left unchecked it will either devour an unsustainable portion of the state budget or bankrupt the pension system itself, putting at risk hard-earned pensions for thousands of state workers and teachers. This year’s pension bill will be $6.8 billion out of a roughly $33 billion budget.

“I think it’s important that all of those who are in the system understand that if the system isn’t there, then there’s no pensions whatsoever,” Quinn said, finally speaking a hard truth without equivocation. These are words everyone in Illinois needs to hear.

Quinn’s comments come after Moody’s Investors Service downgraded the state’s rating last week, giving Illinois the worst rating of any state. Moody’s cited the state’s failure to “implement lasting solutions to its severe pension underfunding or its chronic bill payment delays.” A downgrade almost certainly means Illinois will pay more to borrow.

This editorial page has come around, reluctantly, to the view that the only way out of the pension mess — caused not by overly-generous benefits but by the state’s failure to pay its share each year — is to reduce pensions of current employees going forward.

We haven’t heard yet of a workable alternative, though we remain open to what Quinn’s working group comes up with so long as it’s bold and aggressive.

The days ahead likely will be bitter, nasty and partisan. Gov. Quinn must hold firm, guided by one simple truth: Cleaning up Illinois’ pension mess cannot be put off for another day.