56th District candidates say pension reform top priority

Monday, August 23, 2010

While their individual approaches differ, both 56th District state representative candidates agree that pension reform is a key ingredient to solving Illinois' financial woes.

In fact, Republican Ryan Higgins and Democrat Michelle Mussman, both of Schaumburg, believe the need to address the issue has become so obvious that it stands apart from the myriad other issues in the state and nation that see the two parties deadlocked.

"It's an essential component," said Higgins, 28. "There's a growing broad consensus that we have to do something about state pensions. They're unsustainable."

He pointed out that the reforms earlier this year were bipartisan, but added that more needs to be done.

Higgins said one thing missing from this year's action was any meaningful dialogue from the stakeholders themselves - teachers and state employees. Changes were made so quickly that the perspective of these people was left out, he said.

But that doesn't mean leaving the system as it is for future employees is an option, Higgins emphasized.

What's making this an easier time to tinker with the long-untouchable pension system is the recent personal experience of the general public with unsustainable financial systems, Higgins said.

"In 2008, people saw what happened in their own lives when they got overleveraged," he said.

In talking about a reform whose intention is to save the state money, it stands to reason that some combination of lowered benefits or increased employee contributions will be necessary, Higgins said. But it remains to be discussed exactly where that balance would be struck, he added.

Both Higgins and Mussman agree that the debate is entirely about the pensions of future employees and that those of current employees can't be tampered with under the constitution.

They also are both concentrating their focus now on actual state employees, not the firefighter and police officer pensions some municipalities have begun to raise their voices about.

"I think one of the things we ought to start with is to ban retirees from double-dipping," said Mussman, 37.

She referred to the practice of retirees taking second government jobs while already collecting pension payments from their first. She suggested a method be devised that would force retirees to choose between the two sources of income, such as forfeiting the collection of their pensions.

Mussman also favors stronger regulation and a decrease in the discretion employers have to give certain employees "sweetheart deals" for retirement.

She does not favor asking employees for higher contributions as a reform method.

"Employees are already putting in a lot, the employees are not the ones who ruined the system," Mussman said.

Although many different factors are contributing to the state's current $13 billion budget deficit, Mussman said getting to grips with the out-of-control pension system is a necessary step toward solving this problem.

"It needs to be a pretty high priority because taxpayers are on the hook for $80 billion for pension debt," Mussman said.

The 56th District includes Schaumburg and parts of Elk Grove Village, Hoffman Estates, Palatine, Rolling Meadows, Hanover Park, Roselle and Bloomingdale.