The General Assembly approved a plan to pay about $4.5 billion into
its various pension systems during the upcoming fiscal year, using
cash instead of borrowing. It's the first time that has happened in
"This is a message that we're no longer going to kick
the can down the road," said state Sen. Dan Kotowski, D-Park Ridge.
"It's going to allow us to keep a commitment we made as Democrats
this year that we're going to fully fund our pension system and that
borrowing is no longer going to be an option."
It wasn't just Democrats who applauded the idea of using cash on
hand to fund the pension system. The plan had the support of most
Republicans in the legislature, too. State Sen. Matt Murphy,
R-Palatine, called the move a step in the right direction.
"Our side of the aisle has been very committed to making the
pension payment with cash rather than borrowing for years, so I
appreciate this effort," Murphy said.
Legislators said that with the pension payment out of the way,
they can go forward on deciding how to divvy up the rest of the
state's general revenue fund.
Illinois sold $3.7 billion in bonds in February and $3.5 billion
in bonds in January 2010 to cover this year's pension payment.
The state's unfunded pension liabilities -- how much the state
has promised to pay employees when they retire minus funds that will
be available for pensions -- stands at $79 billion, according to a
recent report from the Institute of Government and Public Affairs at
the University of Illinois.
According the Sunshine Review, other estimates put the unfunded
liability at more than $190 billion. Taxpayers guarantee benefits
whether the state has money to pay them or not.
Politicians in Illinois have a history of neglecting the five
state-run pension funds. Gov. Rod Blagojevich would skip paying the
funds some years, calling them pension "holidays" and funneling the
money to other areas of state government.
J. Fred Giertz is a professor of economics at the University of
Illinois and a member of the Institute of Government and Public
Affairs. He explained at a recent symposium on Illinois' pension
systems that when revenue slows for governments, it's easier to
skirt payments that don't have an immediate effect.
"If you don't have enough money, what do you do? Well, if you
don't want to raise taxes, you don't want to make cuts, you simply
don't put all the money into the pension system that's need(ed) that
particular year," Giertz said. "And nothing bad happens right away,
but you do that year after year after year and sort of the opposite
of compound interest (happens)."
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Money not put into the funds is money that can't be invested and
therefore can't bring in a return.
"One hundred million dollars not put in 20 years ago becomes a $1
billion shortfall today," Giertz went on to say.
Giertz said that if the state had made all required payments, the
system would be close to fully funded, though the state would still
be facing financial problems if it borrowed to make those payments.
"Pensions are a manifestation, a way we were able to fund a
situation where we were spending more than we were taking in year
after year, and that has obviously come to a head," he added.
The situation has been dire enough to push through changes for
new state employees last year.
This "second tier" of employees must wait until they are 67 years
old, instead of 60 years old, to retire to get their full benefits.
Additionally, the new law limits cost-of-living adjustments to 3
percent or half of the actual inflation rate, whichever is less.
However those changes donít have any effect on what the state
already owes employees.
There has been talk of further changes, including possible
changes to current employees' benefits, though the constitutionality
of that has come into question and no legislation has been
Statehouse News; By ANDREW THOMASON]