Don't be fooled

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Mom, a paragon of manners, stresses the importance of offering sincere gratitude before asking for more. In keeping with that advice, we thank Illinois legislators for their approval late Wednesday of scaled-down pension benefits for future public employees.

Just so we're clear, though: A logician would say this legislation is necessary but not sufficient. A hungry logician would say it's not even half a loaf. It's a nice, firm crust — cut way too thin.

The measure, which the House passed Wednesday afternoon and the Senate Wednesday night, would raise the age at which retiring public-sector workers could collect full pension benefits. It also would put new limits on several pension plan provisions — again, for future hires.
House Speaker Michael Madigan offered numerous repetitions Wednesday of a line intended to calm public employee unions: "This bill does not affect anybody who works for a government today."

And that's the problem.

We want every past or current public worker to get what the state constitution guarantees: the full pension benefits that employee already has earned. And we appreciate the fact that, under this measure, less generous pension provisions for employees not yet hired could save taxpayers billions of dollars in future decades. (Unless, that is, lawmakers spend those prospective savings before they materialize.)

But most of these cost reductions don't come at an especially urgent time: right now. Lawmakers still need to lower future benefits in current employees' gold-plated plans. That's where the drain on current resources is — the unsustainable obligations created by previous governors and legislatures.

Which is why we've championed the plan by the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago to limit benefits that current employees earn going forward. Under that plan, private-sector workers in similarly frozen pension plans still would be envious: Public workers would retain defined-benefit pensions — an endangered species out here where most taxpayers live.

That said, we understand the realpolitik here: Democrats and Republicans who voted for this bill Wednesday can tell voters they've done something worthwhile, even if it doesn't much diminish the state's current budget crisis or pay down our already staggering unfunded pension obligations.

What the politicians can't pretend, though, is that this bill repairs how Illinois spends money today. Until they've made the major spending reforms that this page and other voices keep advocating, Gov. Pat Quinn is free to keep scaring people with his threat to slash education funding by $1.3 billion.

Moving on from Wednesday's action to real pension reforms affecting current employees should, by itself, mean school districts wouldn't have to fire all those thousands of teachers.

Changing how Illinois spends today also should silence Quinn's call for a tax increase — something this jobs-starved state should avoid if at all possible.
Late Wednesday, Quinn issued a statement praising the measure and adding that he looks forward to "making pension reform a reality in Illinois."

So do we.

That means now enacting much more ambitious pension reforms. Illinois lawmakers need to give current public employees still-generous benefits that are more in line with what private-sector workers and employers can afford.