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Illinois’ real pension crisis: Finding enough taxpayers to pay the bills

By   /   October 22, 2013  /   News  /   No Comments

By Benjamin Yount | Illinois Watchdog

SPRINGFIELD  —  The top Democrat in the Illinois Senate says the state’s worst-in-the-nation pension debt is not a crisis. And he’s right.

Senate President John Cullerton points out that Illinois’ pension debt merely is slowly bankrupting the state.

WHO IS GOING TO PAY? Andrzejewski says Illinois cannot afford the generous pensions promised to public workers.

WHO IS GOING TO PAY? Andrzejewski says Illinois cannot afford the generous pensions promised to public workers.

Cullerton said the real crisis, in his mind, is making sure there is enough tax revenue to pay the states’ nearly $9 billion a year pension payment. But he is wrong.

Cullerton should be worried there are enough taxpayers to pay the bills.

Illinois have close to 1 million government workers — teachers, state employees, local cops and firefighters, and federal employees all due some sort of public pension.

But there only 4 million workers in both the public and private sectors combined, and the total public-sector pension debt is astronomical.

“The entire gross domestic product (GDP) of Illinois, the measure of all goods and services produced in the state, is only $644 billion,” Adam Andrzejewski, founder of the watchdog OpenTheBooks.com told Illinois Watchdog. “The teachers’ retirement plan is underfunded by estimates of $100-$200 billion. That’s up to one-third of everything produced by the entire economy in a year. It’s a crisis verging on bankruptcy.”

Andrzejewski said there is no way 75 percent of workers in Illinois can continue to guarantee 90 percent of the costs for “gold plated” public pensions for just 25 percent of workers.

“Those government employees have guaranteed salaries, generous sick time and vacation packages, most have 80-100 percent paid health insurance,” Andrzejewski said. “None of this is found amongst rank-and-file employees in the private sector.”

State Rep. Tom Morrison, R-Palatine, said Illinois needs to head off its real crisis and end defined-benefit public pensions.

VOTE WITH THEIR FEET: Morrision says taxpayers can veto pension costs by leaving Illinois.

VOTE WITH THEIR FEET: Morrision says taxpayers can veto pension costs by leaving Illinois.

“The taxpayers that we are counting on to help subsidize retirements are getting more and more concerned about (paying) higher taxes,” Morrision said.

Morrison is one of a handful of lawmakers pushing for a 401(k)-style retirement plan.

“You preserve what (public employees) have earned up to this point,” Morrison said. “But going forward, you give them the ability to control their own retirement plans.”

Current pension reforms would only tweak the system for public employees. Illinois still will be facing billions of dollars in retirement costs while having to scale back services to the public.

Morrison said Illinois cannot afford to pay so much for pensions for so few.

“While (public employees) have a guarantee in the Constitution that says pension benefits cannot be diminished, there’s nothing in the Constitution that forces taxpayers to stay in Illinois,” Morrison said.

Contact Benjamin Yount at [email protected] and find him on Twitter @BenYount.

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Ben formerly served as staff reporter for Watchdog.org.