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Illinois struggles to pay its pensions, but these lawmakers signed up for them anyway

Illinois struggles to pay its pensions, but these lawmakers signed up for them anyway

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BELLEVILLE — Pension reform is a favorite campaign refrain of candidates across party lines. But when it comes up signing up for their own state retirement benefits, few Illinois lawmakers say no.

Of the 177 legislators in the current Illinois General Assembly, 112 signed up for a pension through the optional state retirement system. It provides an average monthly benefit of $5,512 to retirees for life. Lawmakers are eligible to retire and take benefits at age 55 with eight years of service or at age 62 with four years.

Serving in the General Assembly came with a base salary of $69,464 in 2020 and is considered a nearly full-time job, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, a nonpartisan legislative association. Others consider it part-time.

Illinois' pension debt for its five retirement systems, worsened by economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic, set a record last year among the 50 states for its $317 billion net pension liability, a 19% increase from the previous year, according to research released Wednesday by rating firm Moody's Investors Service.

The General Assembly Retirement System alone racked up nearly $375 million of pension liability in fiscal year 2019, and the state can cover roughly 16% of it, the Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability reported. It is the most poorly funded of the state's retirement systems, which for the past decade have been funded at roughly 40%.

Despite the grim situation, five members of the 102nd General Assembly from the metro-east signed up for future retirement benefits.

Metro-east lawmakers who signed up include:

—State Sen. Christopher Belt, D-Centreville

—State Rep. David Friess, R-Red Bud

—State Rep. LaToya Greenwood, D-East St. Louis

—State Rep. Jay Hoffman, D-Swansea

—State Rep. Charlie Meier, R-Okawville

Four metro-east lawmakers declined to register:

—State Sen. Terri Bryant, R-Murphysboro

—State Rep. Amy Elik, R-Fosterburg

—State Sen. Jason Plummer, R-Edwardsville

—State Rep. Katie Stuart, D-Edwardsville

Elik, a freshman lawmaker, said she pledged to voters during her campaign that she wouldn't take the benefit.

"I promised voters that I would reject that pension and not become one of those unfunded liabilities," said Elik, a part-time financial officer for an assisted living facility. "(State representative) is supposed to be a part-time job and my reason for running was not to get a pension."

Friess, also a freshman lawmaker who campaigned on pension reform, said he signed up for the retirement plan just like he would sign up for a 401(k) at a private employer.

"As silly as it sounds, it's what's available," said Friess, who works as an attorney. "I would prefer to not have the system we've got in place."

Though he signed up for the benefit, Friess said he wants the state to "get out of the retirement business." He filed a bill that would put anyone who joins a state retirement system after July 1, 2022, into a plan that more closely resembles a 401(k), where benefits depend on investments and are not guaranteed by the state.

Elik, who cosponsored the bill, says she wouldn't want to take away benefits that have been promised to retirees, but the lawmaker pension is an example of "lavish" perks that have led the state to its current predicament. She also cosponsored a bill filed by state Rep. Deanne Mazzochi, R-Villa Park, to prevent future lawmakers from joining the pension plan.

"The general public sees that and it seems like the lawmakers are getting more than what they deserve, and I think that it's important to show fiscal responsibility as a lawmaker," Elik said.

Belt, the senator from Centreville, said he would have to study the state's pension situation more before considering rejecting the benefit. Other lawmakers who took the pension did not immediately return requests for comment.

Meanwhile, taxpayers continue to pay for the costly General Assembly retirement plan. The state estimates it will contribute $27.3 million from its general revenue fund in fiscal year 2021 to pay for it, and a total of $9.8 billion to the General Assembly system, the State Employees' Retirement System, the State Universities Retirement System, the Judges Retirement System and the Teachers Retirement System.

Other 102nd General Assembly members who are enrolled for retirement benefits include:

State representatives

—Carol Ammons, D-Urbana

—Jaime Andrade Jr., D-Chicago

—Dagmara Avelar, D-Bolingbrook

—Thomas Bennett, R-Gibson City

—Daniel Brady, R-Bloomington

—Kambium Buckner, D-Chicago

—Jonathan Carroll, D-Buffalo Grove

—Kelly Cassidy, D-Chicago

—Andrew Chesney, R-Freeport

—Lakesia Collins, D-Chicago

—Deborah Conroy, D-Villa Park

—Fred Crespo, D-Streamwood

—Margaret Croke, D-Chicago

—John D'Amico, D-Chicago

—William Davis, D-Hazel Crest

—Eva Dina Delgado, D-Chicago

—Anthony DeLuca, D-Chicago Heights

—Thomas Demmer, R-Dixon

—Jim Durkin, R-Burr Ridge

—Marcus Evans Jr., D-Chicago

—Mary Flowers, D-Chicago

—La Shawn Ford, D-Chicago

—Robyn Gabel, D-Evanston

—Jennifer Gong-Gershowitz, D-Glenview

—Edgar Gonzalez Jr., D-Chicago

—Jehan Gordon-Booth, D-Peoria

—William Guzzardi, D-Chicago

—Jacqueline Haas, R-Bourbonnais

—Michael Halpin, D-Rock Island

—Norine Hammond, R-Macomb

—Sonya Harper, D-Chicago

—Gregory Harris, D-Chicago

—Barbara Hernandez, D-Aurora

—Elizabeth Hernandez, D-Cicero

—Frances Hurley, D-Chicago

—Thaddeus Jones, D-Calumet City

—Lindsey LaPointe, D-Chicago

—Camille Lilly, D-Chicago

—Mark Luft, R-Pekin

—Theresa Mah, D-Chicago

—Natalie Manley, D-Joliet

—Joyce Mason, D-Gurnee

—Rita Mayfield, D-Waukegan

—Martin McLaughlin, R-Barrington Hills

—Debbie Meyers-Martin, D-Olympia Field

—Bob Morgan, D-Deerfield

—Michelle Mussman, D-Schaumburg

—Aaron Ortiz, D-Chicago

—Delia Ramirez, D-Chicago

—Robert Rita, D-Blue Island

—Lamont Robinson Jr., D-Chicago

—Justin Slaughter, D-Chicago

—Nicholas Smith, D-Chicago

—Keith P. Sommer, R-Morton

—Joe Sosnowski, R-Rockford

—Anne Stava-Murray, D-Downers Grove

—Curtis Tarver II, D-Chicago

—Denyse Wang Stoneback, D-Skokie

—Mark Walker, D-Arlington Heights

—Lawrence Walsh Jr., D-Joliet

—Emanuel "Chris" Welch, D-Hillside

—David Welter, R-Morris

—Maurice West II, D-Rockford

—Keith R. Wheeler, R-Oswego

—Jawaharial Williams, D-Chicago

—Ann Williams, D-Chicago

—Sam Yingling, D-Grayslake

—Michael Zalewski, D-Riverside

Illinois Department of Public Health director Dr. Ngozi Ezike shares her experience with getting her second dose of the COVID-19 vaccine in an educational video distributed by the state's "All in Illinois" awareness campaign.

State senators

—Omar Aquino, D-Chicago

—Jason Barickman, R-Bloomington

—Scott Bennett, D-Champaign

—Cristina Castro, D-Elgin

—Jacqueline Collins, D-Chicago

—John Connor, D-Joliet

—William Cunningham, D-Chicago

—Laura Ellman, D-Naperville

—Sara Feigenholtz, D-Chicago

—Laura Fine, D-Glenview

—Don Harmon, D-Oak Park

—Napoleon Harris III, D-Chicago

—Michael Hastings, D-Frankfort

—Mattie Hunter, D-Chicago

—Adriane Johnson, D-Buffalo Grove

—Emil Jones III, D-Chicago

—Patrick Joyce, D-Kankakee

—David Koehler, D-Peoria

—Steven Landek, D-Bridgeview

—Kimberly Lightford, D-Maywood

—Meg Loughran Cappel, D-Plainfield

—Robert Martwick Jr., D-Chicago

—Tony McCombie, R-Savanna

—Antonio Munoz, D-Chicago

—Laura Murphy, D-Des Plaines

—Cristina Pacione-Zayas, D-Chicago

—Robert Peters, D-Chicago

—Sue Rezin, R-Morris

—Chapin Rose II, D-Champaign

—Elgie Sims, D-Chicago

—Steve Stadelman, D-Rockford

—Brian Stewart, R-Freeport

—Dave Syverson, R-Chicago

—Jil Tracy, R-Quincy

—Patricia Van Pelt, D-Chicago

—Karina Villa, D-West Chicago

—Celina Villanueva, D-Chicago

—Ram Villivalam, D-Chicago


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