By Eric Boehm | Watchdog.org
After working one day as a substitute teacher in Illinois, David Piccioli could be entitled to an annual pension of more than $30,000.
And he’s suing the state to make sure he gets paid.
Piccioli is a retired union political activist who’s already pulling down a pair of state pensions from Illinois’ beleaguered public retirement system. But he’s taking the Teachers Retirement System to court to squeeze more money out of the state.
The Chicago Tribune reported Thursday that Piccioli is already collecting $31,000 annually from the Teacher Retirement System, but he could get an additional $36,000 annually if he wins his case. He’s also collecting a $30,000-pension from a different state retirement system for his time as a legislative aide in Springfield, according to the Tribune.
Piccioli is a retired lobbyist for the Illinois Federation of Teachers and never worked in a classroom, but he took advantage of a loophole in Illinois pension law to score his teaching pension.
In 2007, he worked one day as a substitute teacher at a Springfield school. Under Illinois pension law, that one day in the classroom allowed him to qualify for a pension that would pay him for all of his years of work as a member of the union.
“In 2007, Mr. Piccioli obeyed all laws to enroll in TRS on his first day as a classroom instructor,” said Piccioli in a statement released through his lawyer. “His enrollment was identical to 300,000 other members who joined the teacher retirement system after their first day of teaching.”
The key difference, of course, is that the vast majority of those 300,000 other members were working as teachers — not simply taking advantage of a sweet loophole in the pension law.
After media reports detailing how he and others took advantage of the loophole, lawmakers in Illinois passed a law in 2012 closing the loophole and reducing future pension benefits for those who had used it.
But the Illinois constitution contains a provision that protects reducing or diminishing any public pension. Piccioli argues reductions approved by the Legislature are unconstitutional.
State Sen. Kwame Raoul, D-Chicago, who sponsored the pension reform bill that is the subject of Piccioli’s lawsuit, told the Chicago Tribune the court challenge was “bold.”
“It’s unfortunate given the image that that gives about people who are receiving public pensions,” Raoul told the newspaper. “That’s not characteristic of the common, hardworking public-sector worker who makes a modest income and has a modest retirement benefit. It gives people the impression of otherwise.”
Piccioli is 65, according to the paper.
Illinois pension funds are under fire financially and legally.
The state’s pension funds are underfunded by more than $100 billion — not including Chicago’s pension funds, which are handled separately and are another $63 billion in debt — and are generally viewed as the worst state pension funds in the entire nation.
New Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner has vowed to tackle the pension problems, but aside from kicking more money into the depleted funds and changing benefits for future employees, there’s only so much he can do about the current debt.
The bigger battle is in front of the state’s Supreme Court. It heard oral arguments last week in a case that will determine whether the state can reduce or eliminate automatic cost-of-living adjustments, or COLAs, given to retirees.
The state is arguing cuts to the COLA are necessary because of the dire state of the pension funds.
But unions representing retirees and current workers say the COLA is protected by the same constitutional guarantee that says pension benefits can’t be reduced in any way.