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Last best chance for pension bill

Illinois House  |  Sun-Times Library

Illinois House | Sun-Times Library

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Updated: January 4, 2014 6:26AM

Over the weekend and on Monday, a handful of loud but poorly informed sideline critics jumped up at the last minute to argue against a bill in Springfield designed to end the state’s employee pension crisis.

The bill, they say, does not save enough money. The bill, they say, is a sellout to “big union bosses.” The bill, they say, puts the state on the hook for unaffordably huge pension payments before almost all else, come what may. The bill, they say, amounts to a secret tax hike.

Nonsense. Ignore the bench-warmers in clean uniforms playing fantasy football.

But your average state legislator, an easily rattled creature in the best of times, has a way of listening to nonsense, especially when it comes from the likes of U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk and that businessman running for governor, Bruce Rauner.

So let’s understand a few things:

♦ The bill to resolve the state’s pension mess, up for a vote as early as Tuesday, is expected to save taxpayers $160 billion over 30 years. That ain’t chopped liver.

♦ The bill kicks ordinary working people — secretaries, clerks, teachers and the like — in the teeth. Much of the bill’s $160 billion in savings comes from reducing the cost-of-living increases to their pensions and pushing back their retirement age. Forget what Rauner says — this bill is no gift to “big union bosses.”

♦ The bill inflicts considerable pain on public employees, but every alternative is even worse. Illinois cannot raise taxes high enough or cut government spending deep enough to solve the pension crisis. The state’s $100 billion unfunded pension liability already is strangling the state, forcing devastating cuts to schools, health care and other basic services; if nothing is done, these cuts are just the beginning.

♦ The bill will not lead to a continuation of a state income tax increase that is set to expire in 2015. Why? Because that tax hike will have to be continued anyway. It raises $5.4 billion a year for the state — far more than even the most draconian pension reform bill could ever save — and nobody has begun to explain how the state would replace or limp along without those billions.

♦ The bill does not obligate the state to make its full scheduled annual payments to the pension funds, much to the unions’ disappointment. If the Legislature were to lower its annual contributions in hard financial times, as the bill allows, the state would face only limited financial exposure if sued.

♦ The bill contains nothing that should surprise anybody. Sen. Kirk on Monday fretted that state legislators haven’t “had time to read” the bill, but everything in this bill has been understood and debated all summer — and really for the last two years. The bill language matters, of course, but there should be no big surprises.

A word of warning:

This bill was forged in a crucible of competing self-interests. Everybody had a stake in the outcome — the taxpayers, the public employees, the schools and clinics that rely on state funding, the politicians who worry about reelection — and nobody was about to roll over for anybody.

If the bill is defeated now — if the Legislature this week again fails to take action on the single biggest threat to Illinois’ future — nobody should count on a better bill, or any politically viable bill, coming along again soon, no matter who is governor.

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