We’re broke. Don’t you think it's time we got mad?

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Do you remember the 1976 movie "Network," where the newscaster — fed up with the sluggish economy and abysmal governance — instructs his audience to lean out the window and shout, "I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!"?

That's the kind of public display of frustration we need in Illinois if we want Springfield to get serious about the financial mess we're in.

Illinois is broke. It is spending more money than it earns and it has a mountain of debt. I had the privilege of serving as the chairman and CEO of Illinois Tool Works for 10 years, and if I had run ITW the way our elected officials have run Illinois, ITW would have filed for bankruptcy.

Illinois' retirement-related debt amounts to $25,000 per household — the equivalent of a year's worth of mortgage payments or an entire year's take-home pay for some people. By June 30, the end of the fiscal year, Illinois will owe more than $130 billion. The problems are the state pension funds, pension bonds and retiree health care programs, which account for $120 billion of that debt. Years of generous retirement benefits and irresponsible budgeting have made the system unsustainable.

It's enough to make you scream, isn't it?

Business leaders who sit on the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago are mad, and they are not going to take it any more. The committee has launched a campaign to engage the public on this important issue and convince our elected leaders to enact much-needed reforms.

The committee has created a Web site, http://www.IllinoisIsBroke.com, where you can learn more about this issue as well as write the candidates and tell them to fix this problem. If enough of us speak up, perhaps the politicians will find the political courage to stand up to the special interests that are bankrupting our state.

We must make common-sense reforms to the public retirement system. We're not talking about taking benefits that people have already earned. If people have given the state 30 years of service, they should get the benefits they have earned. But to get control of this financial mess, we have to freeze pensions and create a more reasonable retirement program for existing employees and new hires.

Right now, many state employees can retire as young as 55 after 30 years of service. They can receive a pension of 75 percent or more of their salary with guaranteed annual increases of 3 percent and free health insurance. And after they retire, they can get another state job and earn a second pension.

How does that compare to your retirement plan?

We need to raise the retirement age for state employees to that required by the Social Security Administration. They also should contribute to the cost of their health care, just like the rest of us. The private sector reformed its pensions years ago. For some companies, it was a do-or-die situation. Years of neglect have left Illinois in that same condition today.

Our leaders have avoided the tough decisions for too long. We must shout at them with one voice, "I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!"