Opinion | Brett Rowland: Time to get serious about pension reform

Opinion | Brett Rowland: Time to get serious about pension reform

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Illinoisans are fed up with high property taxes and want lawmakers to address the state's financial problems, including its unaffordable pension systems.

Most Illinoisans agree, including progressive Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot.

AARP released new poll data through the Center for Illinois Politics. The poll, taken at the end of former Gov. Bruce Rauner's administration, surveyed 1,200 voters over the age of 25 and found that 85 percent of respondents say lawmakers should address the state’s backlogged bills and pension debt.

“Our state’s deep fiscal problems, including the $6 billion unpaid bill backlog, $130 billion pension deficit, and near-junk level credit rating hurts Illinoisans of all ages on a daily basis,” AARP Director Ryan Gruenenfelder said. “To display the true impact of the state’s troubling finances, it was important this poll reveal how important solving these problems is to Illinoisans of all ages.”

On Wednesday, Lightfoot used her budget address to the Chicago City Council to call on the Illinois General Assembly to make changes to state pension laws. She wants lawmakers to "develop a statewide pension reform package."

The mayor didn't provide any specifics on what changes she thinks should be made to address the state's pension crisis or what that reform package should include, but at this point it is clear that nibbling around the edges or simply ignoring the problem altogether won't help Chicago or the rest of the state.

At an estimated $46 billion, Chicago has higher pension liabilities than many states. In Lightfoot’s budget, the city's total pension contribution has increased by $346 million to $1.7 billion.

The state spends about a quarter of its annual operating budget on pension payments. And it's not making headway on reducing the state's overall pension liability. Without changes, that cost will continue to grow, squeezing out other needed expenses.

The state's pension protection clause needs to be scrapped and benefits need to be reduced.

Until lawmakers in Springfield get serious about the problem, little can be done to address the state's declining population, poor credit rating or other fiscal problems. In fact, without action, Illinois will continue to circle the drain.

University of Chicago Professor Roger Myerson recently told WGN that the state's high taxes aren't the reason people are leaving Illinois.

"Of course there is some cost to having to pay more taxes, that’s true. But, it’s not going to ruin the state of Illinois," Myerson told WGN. "What is more ruinous to Illinois is the systematic unwillingness to face the realities of budgeting, and accumulating debts that will just increase the burden in the future."

Myerson won the 2007 Nobel Prize in Economics, so he knows about money. I'm not sure I agree with him about reasons people are packing up and heading to other states but I do agree that a head-in-the-sand approach won't work.

Polls, including AARP's latest, consistently show that high taxes are a top reason people either leave or consider leaving Illinois.

So, let's see if elected lawmakers in Springfield will heed the calls from constituents and Chicago's mayor to address this crisis before it gets worse.

Brett Rowland is Illinois editor of The Center Square, a project of the Franklin Center for Government & Public Integrity, a non-profit media company dedicated to the principles of transparency, accountability and fiscal responsibility. His columns include his own opinions and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinion or editorial position of The Southern. Contact Brett at browland@ilnews.org.



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