Pensions over people

Pensions over people

The pension problem was created and has been fueled by weak politicians – men and women who decided their next elections were more important than the next generation.

A yearlong budget battle is set to push Illinois into uncharted waters.

No state has gone without a budget for a full year since at least the 1930s, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

State Comptroller Leslie Munger announced that come July 1, her office will be forced to stop $23 billion in spending for schools, 911 call centers, domestic violence shelters, federally funded social and human services and higher education.

“Our social service network is being torn apart,” Munger said.

The potential catastrophe beginning July 1 raises an important question Illinoisans have been asking for months. How did we get here?

Of course, political leaders have been locked in battle for the last 12 months. But beyond that, the state hasn’t had a balanced budget since 2001. It’s home to the worst credit rating in the nation. Its problems are broad and deep.

John F. Kennedy offers a clue. “To govern is to choose,” he once said.

A look at the choices Illinois lawmakers have made over the past 15 years shows the state’s political elite has had little interest in protecting funding for education, social services and public safety. Rather, politicians have allowed spending on state-worker pensions and benefits to crowd out the core services Illinoisans depend on most.

From 2000 to 2015, total state tax revenues grew by a robust 57 percent. But spending on higher education (down 8 percent), human services (up 10 percent), public safety (up 12 percent) and K-12 education (35 percent) hasn’t come close to that pace, according to the governor’s 2017 budget summary.

So why is Illinois mired in debt and unpaid bills?

Medicaid spending is up 141 percent over that time period. State-employee insurance spending is up 166 percent. And that’s nothing compared to the elephant in the room.

Spending on state-employee pension benefits grew an astonishing 586 percent, or $6.6 billion, from 2000 to 2015.

With priorities like those, it’s no wonder the Land of Lincoln has been hellish for social service providers over the last decade. While the last year has been particularly difficult, these problems are not new.

Even in recent years when the state had budgets and a record-setting tax hike, community organizations still struggled with a deadbeat state.

A 2013 Urban Institute survey reported that for more than two-thirds of Illinois nonprofits, government payments did not cover the full cost of contracted services. A 2009 Urban Institute study pegged Illinois as the worst state in the nation for timely payments to nonprofits.

Blaming state workers for these out-of-whack priorities is unfair. The pension problem was created and has been fueled by weak politicians – men and women who decided their next elections were more important than the next generation.

These lawmakers have failed to make tough choices to protect essential services from the black hole of pension payments. Now, 25 cents of every dollar the state spends goes to pensions.

It’s been over a year since the Illinois Supreme Court ruled a modest pension-reform package unconstitutional. So what have lawmakers been doing in the meantime to ensure Illinoisans aren’t stuck in a state that puts pensions over people?

A whole lot of nothing.

The state Supreme Court’s ruling left open a number of simple reforms lawmakers could make today if they wanted.

They could lead by example and abolish their own pensions. They could give new workers 401(k)-style retirement plans, which most Illinoisans rely on. They could offer 401(k)s to existing workers as an alternative to betting on a bankrupt pension system. They could limit the meteoric growth in benefits by freezing salaries.

These ideas have been met with a resounding shrug in Springfield. Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan, D-Chicago, hasn’t permitted a vote on any state pension reform since the ruling.

Illinois Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago, has been paying a lobbyist $10,000 a month to work on pension reform. But Cullerton has refused to put his reform plan up for a vote, despite pleas from Gov. Bruce Rauner. And each day of inaction serves to further crowd out the state’s essential services, bit by bit.

Of course, the selfishness of Springfield’s political leaders is nothing new. Not in the state that puts politics, and pensions, over people.

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