Tuesday, April 10, 2012

“Fixing Illinois’ Public Pensions” Better Government Association, April 9, 2012

                                                  (Photograph by Todd Mertz)

Remarks made by TRS Executive Director Dick Ingram became an immediate subject of a recent panel discussion held by the Better Government Association on April 9, 2012, at Loyola University in Chicago. Two members of the pension committee convened by Governor Quinn had an opportunity to speak about what “we all face” in light of increased pension costs because of the unfunded liability (money now owed and that has not been paid into the fund during several governors’ tenures).
Representatives Darlene Senger and Elaine Nekritz spoke about the nature of the deficit problem and moving forward to make adjustments to the retirement system. Henry Bayer, executive director of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, AFL-CIO, Council 31, and Tyrone Fahner, president of the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago were also present.

Fahner was quick to remind everyone in the audience that “out of a sense of responsibility to his membership, Mr. Dick Ingram, head of the TRS, has admitted to the pension system’s insolvency”; that the “real numbers were hidden.”  Rank-and-file members from the public unions in the room were silent, not out of surprise but because once again they were hearing Ingram’s words being used to make a case that “cuts” to the current teachers and, quite possibly the retirees, were necessary, despite the constitutional provision that protects such changes.

When asked “what are the limits of pension reform? Where must we stop because of the constitution,” Fahner replied that “the only limits are that we can’t take what’s already been earned. That would be inappropriate and unconstitutional.” Nonetheless, Fahner said that changes going forward can be “frozen” or “changed”; that Chief Legal Counsel to Illinois Senate President John Cullerton and Parliamentarian of the Illinois Senate Madiar is wrong” about his analysis regarding a current employee’s vested right when he or she enters the pension system. He also said “if we do nothing, everyone is screwed.”

Senger added “SB 512 wasn’t unconstitutional. It wasn’t taking away benefits. We have a system that is failing” and “every time you delay a solution, it becomes costly.” Senger also declared that the employer (school district) should pay the normal costs since the employer makes the contracts, and that “the COLA is the problem” and “should be suspended like in Rhode Island.”

The Chicago Tribune had cited Ingram a few days earlier: “With insolvency looming in as little as 17 years, the head of the state’s largest pension fund is a warning that pension benefits promised to teachers, starting with those already retired, may need to be cut” (Teachers and pension cuts. Chicago Tribune 4 April 2012). Another article by Chris Wetterich in the Springfield’s State Journal Register had quoted Ingram: “What we are saying is that the number is so bad that you have to start having those conversations. The reality is that if you look at the pension math, the single biggest cost is the COLA” (31 March 2012).

The reactionary firestorm was to be expected. Rank-and-file, as well as the IFT and AFCSME, were shrill in their condemnations of Ingram’s sudden and unexplained change. The Illinois Education Association likewise responded but with close connections to the TRS (the president of IEA is also a TRS trustee): “It’s important to understand that the current situation is very serious but capable of being resolved. TRS, SURS, and other state systems can be saved, but we need to understand that it will not be easy or inexpensive” (http://www.ieanea.org/featured/pension-update-april-1-2012/). 

Meanwhile, Ingram has been eager to make clear that his statements were a warning regarding what would happen as a result of the state’s failure to fund or lessen the funding to the teachers’ pension. Those were, according to Ingram, the reasons for the stress tests conducted by Buck Consultants. In short, his words were being used “out of context.” To make this even more clear, Ingram printed a clarification in the Chicago Tribune’s Voice of the People on Tuesday, April 10 that stated: “Neither I nor the Teachers Retirement System is proposing any changes in member benefits, especially a reduction in the current annual cost-of-living adjustment… It is not our role at TRS to suggest a solution to this problem.”

Nevertheless, in the same editorial, Ingram once again warns that he has told his board that significant changes must occur in order to avoid insolvency, and these changes need come from newly-generated revenue sources. He further said “Any of these significant changes can only be made by the General Assembly.” For the media, Ingram outlined the “possible areas where lawmakers may look for a solution. There are only a few options available, and none are very pleasant to discuss – changes in the cost-of-living adjustment, in member contributions, in retirement age and in the benefit formula, as well as increased revenues through taxes.”

When the question of finding revenue rather than cutting pension benefits was asked, Senger’s immediate response was “giving an ‘over-spender’ [the State of Illinois] more money is not an answer.” Fahner then asked the audience in the forum: “Do you want your taxes to go up?” While no one wants an increase in taxes, and most people want an equitable and fair taxation for all, Fahner reminded the audience that under Illinois’ current tax structure, they [the middle class] would take the brunt of any increase.  Bayer countered that Fahner “wants to fix the pensions and roll back $6 billion worth of taxes” on the wealthy and corporations.

When asked “are taxpayers going to take another hit?” Nekritz responded that “we knew that the [income] tax increase wasn’t going to solve the pension problem.”  When asked whether the retirement age for current teachers be raised, Senger, Nekritz and Fahner said “yes”; Bayer said “no.” When asked whether the COLA be a part of the pension solution? Senger, Nekritz and Fahner said “yes”; Bayer said “no.”  When asked whether the state should pay what it owes, all of them said “yes.”

In seven days, the pension committee will send its recommendations to Governor Quinn.  They will not include increases in revenue such as a graduated income tax that has been recommended by the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the Center for Economic Policy and Research, the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, the National Conference of State Legislatures, the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, and United for a Fair Economy, et al.

They will not include the establishment of a broader tax base so rates are “lower in order to minimize the impact…” and because a broader tax base offers “diversification since it spreads the burden of taxation among more payers than a narrow basis does” (National Conference of State Legislatures).

They will not include the taxation of services to increase needed revenue despite the fact that “the tax system in the State of Illinois does not reflect today’s economic realities” (Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning) and the State of Illinois taxes less than one-third of the 168 potentially-taxable services (Center on Budget and Policy Priorities).

Moreover, they will not include the elimination of welfare for the rich even though “the State of Illinois is among 10 states in the nation with the highest taxes paid by its poorest citizens at 13 percent” (the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy), and one of the few states where the top five percent of income earners pay the least amount of sales, excise, property and income taxes because of federal deduction offsets or regressive tax loopholes from itemized deductions, such as capital gains tax breaks and deductions for federal income taxes paid that are coupled with a flat-rate structure (the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy).  They will include suggestions to cut the constitutional benefits of teachers, however.

                                                                                                --John Dillon & Glen Brown

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