Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Understanding funded ratio and unfunded liability from the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability

What is a funded ratio?

The funded ratio places the unfunded liabilities in the context of the retirement system's assets. Expressed as a percentage of a system's liabilities, the funded ratio is calculated by dividing net assets by the actuarial accrued liabilities. The result is the percentage of the accrued liabilities that are covered by assets. At 100%, a system has sufficient assets to pay all benefits earned to date for all its members. However, in a February 2012, article for Governing magazine Girard Miller states that to actually be fully funded a pension system should have a funded ratio of 125% (calculating assets at market value). TRS is approximately at 46%.

Source: All funded ratios are from each system’s Fiscal Year 2011 Comprehensive Annual Financial Report, which are available online.
What is an unfunded accrued liability?

An Unfunded Accrued Liability (UAL) is also known as the Unfunded Actuarial Accrued Liability (UAAL) and is commonly referred to as the unfunded pension liability. An unfunded accrued liability is the difference between accrued liabilities and the value of assets accumulated to finance an obligation. While similar to the funded ratio, an unfunded accrued liability is commonly expressed in dollar amounts.

However, only looking at the dollar amount can be misleading, and another way to examine an unfunded pension liability is to calculate the ratio of the UAL to active employee payroll. For example, for fiscal year 2010 the UAL for the Illinois Teachers' Retirement System was $39.84 billion, which as a percentage of payroll is 430.8%.1 The smaller a ratio is, the stronger the system is.

1. Source: Illinois Teachers' Retirement System. 2010. Comprehensive Annual Financial Report.

What is the source of Illinois' unfunded pension liability?

At the end of FY 1995, Illinois' state retirement systems' unfunded liabilities totaled almost $19.5 billion. By the end of FY 2006, unfunded liabilities totaled $40.7 billion. According to the Illinois Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability, the failure to make employer contributions at a normal-cost-plus-interest level over the ten year reporting period has been the most significant catalyst in the increase in unfunded liabilities of all five State-funded systems. As of 2011 the unfunded liability had grown to roughly $83 billion.1

1. Source: Illinois Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability. 2011. Monthly Briefing, November 2011. Please note that that CoGFA brief contains two different unfunded liability figures. The difference between the two figures is how assets are calculated. One calculation uses the asset market value technique, whereas the other calculates assets using the actuarial value of assets method (this is the method used by the state pension systems).

Monday, November 26, 2012

Article XIII, Section 5 (the “Pension Clause”) of the 1970 Illinois Constitution (League of Women Voters...)

The 2011-2013 League of Women Voters of Illinois (LWVIL) Pension Study
[All bracketed assertions are my commentary.]

Membership in any pension or retirement system of the State, any unit of local government or school district, or any agency or instrumentality thereof, shall be an enforceable contractual relationship, the benefits of which shall not be diminished or impaired.

This section is interpreted to mean that participation in a public pension system creates an enforceable contractual relationship. Therefore, the State of Illinois has a legal obligation to pay employees those benefits that have accrued to them under the applicable pension system.

With this Section 5 as background, there are two sets of opposing legal arguments about changing current Illinois public employees’ pensions: (1) the rules/regulations for current public employees’ pensions are based on the date of hire and cannot be changed without violating Section 5. (2) A current public employee’s pension benefits already accrued cannot be changed, but future pension benefits can be changed without violating Section 5.

The first position is articulated in a legal brief by Eric Madiar, Chief Legal Counsel to Illinois Senate President John Cullerton. The second position is articulated in a legal brief/article by Sidley Austin law firm representing the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago. The State of Illinois has fiscal responsibility for the funding of five (5) primary retirement systems: the General Assembly Retirement System (GARS), the Judges’ Retirement System (JRS), the State Employees’ Retirement System (SERS), the State Universities Retirement System (SURS), and the Teachers' Retirement System (TRS).

Pension Study Background

The State University Retirement System and the Teachers’ Retirement System: These systems are considered "defined benefit" plans, [in other words] at retirement employees will receive monthly annuities for life. The annuities are based on several factors, including years of service, retirement age, salary(ies) on which amount of pension is based, and other provisions. Employees contribute a percentage of salary to their pension system. Contributions from the state should be in an amount referred to as "normal cost plus interest." The "normal cost" is the value of pension benefits earned during a particular year. "Interest" is the amount needed to cover what is referred to as the interest on the unfunded liability, which liability is generally defined as the present value of the annuity payments earned to date and that will be paid in the future minus the value of the current assets of a plan. Illinois uses an [8.0%] rate for this interest calculation.

For a variety of reasons, Illinois has not contributed all the funds needed to keep the five pension systems at the levels usually recommended by the financial community. In addition, the State has not earned expected rates of return on investments and actuarial assumptions were not accurate. As a result, the five pension systems are severely underfunded (calculated to be less than 50% funded), and the State currently does not have the financial means to resolve this problem [unless, of course, the State restructures its antiquated revenue system and pension debt].

The current Illinois pension systems seem to be unsustainable and create an overwhelming burden for the State. The issues to be addressed are what changes can be made to the pension systems under the Pension Clause; what type of system would be sustainable and appropriate for Illinois going forward, and what safeguards may be put in place to prevent problems of the current magnitude occurring again.

There are many suggestions out there as to how to remedy the situation. Changes to the pension systems were made which will impact employees hired after January 1, 2011 [SB 1946]. At issue are the 2011-2013 LWVIL Pension Study - Background 1: systems for employees employed prior to January 1, 2011 and, in particular, interpretation of the portion of the Illinois Constitution Pension Clause that states “…the benefits of which shall not be diminished or impaired” (Article XIII, Section 5).

There is legislation being considered which would change the pension systems and, thus, possibly "diminish or impair" employee benefits. Legal and political opinions are being made in favor of and against any changes. The constitutionality of these changes is a major factor in these opinions.

Summary of Legal Opinions on Issue of Changes to Pension Systems

The main issue is whether Illinois can make any changes in the pension systems that may be interpreted as having "diminished or impaired" the benefits without violating the Pension Clause. Would any change in formula "impair or diminish" the benefits? There are two memoranda which address these issues: One is Eric Madiar’s opinion entitled Is Welching on Public Pension Promises an Option for Illinois? dated March 4, 2011, which makes the case that no changes would be allowed for employees in the system prior to January 1, 2011 without the consent of each individual member, since the Pension Clause specifically assigns the pension rights as “an enforceable contractual relationship.” The other is Sidley Austin’s response to Madiar, entitled “The General Assembly’s Authority to Enact Comprehensive Pension Reform Legislation” dated April 11, 2011, which contends that making changes that protect the future of the system as a whole are needed to keep the systems from totally collapsing and, therefore, do not constitute "impairment or diminishing" the system.

Sidley Austin has an earlier memorandum on the subject dated December 7, 2010, entitled The State of Illinois, and the City of Chicago and Smaller Municipalities, Are Not the Guarantors of The Payment of Pension Benefits. Below is an attempt at condensing both Sidley Austin's (“SA”) and Madiar's (“M”) arguments into a point/counterpoint summary:

SA: The Pension Clause protects only benefits earned to date, not future benefits. Pensions are based on "earned benefits" to that point. Future benefits are "expectations" and rely on any number of factors, including continuation in service and salary.
M: Public employees are already obligated to contribute and work in order to receive pension benefits. Continued employment does not constitute acceptance of a revised pension system because the only way to preserve rights under the existing contract is to be forced to quit. Employees’ rights are secured under the contract at the time of membership in the pension system.
SA: The Pension Clause is not meant to protect pensions (a right) at the cost of state services (a duty of the state). The framers of the 1970 Constitution rejected proposals for requiring full funding.
M: SA mis-characterizes the convention debates. Sponsors meant for Pension Clause to protect the employees’ pension rights as a contract and enforceable in court. While the framers rejected proposals for any required funding, contractual rights of employees to pensions would make funding those pensions an "expectation."
SA: Legislation does not "diminish or impair" pension benefits since it would ultimately save the systems from the underfunding issue. If Illinois were a corporation and could consider bankruptcy, pension funds would be considered a contract right, not a property right, and holders of contract rights are unsecured creditors.
M: The Pension Clause constitutes a guarantee that the State will pay 100% of all pension benefits, regardless of circumstances.
SA: Pension benefits should be treated the same as salaries and health benefits, which can be changed or modified. Of all state employees, only judges’ salaries are protected from reduction during their service.
M: Each of the State’s five pension codes has a similar provision of Obligations of the State. From 2011-2013 LWVIL Pension Study - Background 2: The payment of the required department contributions, all allowances, annuities, benefits granted under this Article, and all expenses of administration of the system are obligations of the State of Illinois to the extent specified in this Article.” The Pension Clause in itself puts pensions in a different category than salaries and health benefits.

Illinois Court Cases That Have Rendered Decisions Impacting Pension Issues
1. Peters v. City of Springfield., 57 Ill. 2d 142, 311 N.E.2d 107 (1974) (IL Supreme Court) addresses City of Springfield ordinances that lowered the firemen’s retirement age from 63 to 60. Firemen argued that this change was beyond the City’s home rule powers and that it impaired their ability to maximize their pensions by working to age 63 [and, thus,] in violation of the Pension Clause. The trial court agreed with the firemen, but the Supreme Court disagreed. The Supreme Court said that the City was within its home rule powers and that the Pension Clause was not violated. The Peters court determined that the Pension Clause was intended to “insure the rights of public employees which had been earned and should not be diminished…” This language in the Clause did not prevent the City from changing the retirement age.

[Pension rights are “earned.” There is no distinction between “earned” and “unearned” pension benefits… “The Clause protects pension benefit rights as an enforceable contractual relationship that is subject to modification through contract principles.”]

2. Kraus v. Board of Trustees, 72 Ill. App. 3d 833, 390 N.E.2d 1281 (1st Dist. 1979) (IL Appellate Court): A police officer went on disability due to an on-duty injury after 11 years of active service. When he entered the force, in 1956, an officer could retire after 20 combined years of active service and disability and could base retirement on the salary for his rank when he elected to retire. In 1973, before the officer met the 20-year requirement to retire, the legislature changed the Pension Code to give an officer a pension based on his salary at the time he went on disability. The police pension board thus based the officer’s retirement on his salary in 1967 rather than the salary for his rank in 1976 when he retired. The trial court reversed the police pension board. The Appellate Court agreed with the trial court and held that the amendment to the Pension Code (in 1973) could not apply to the officer because the Pension Clause “entitled [him] to receive the benefits under the relevant sections of the Pension Code as in effect at the time the constitutional provision became effective in 1971.” The court said pension rights became fixed when an employee entered the pension system or when the constitution became operative, whichever was later, but not at retirement.

[Law existing at the time of “vesting” is incorporated into employee’s agreement… Pension benefits commence at the time employee contributions begin… General Assembly cannot modify benefits. “The Clause protects pension benefit rights as an enforceable contractual relationship that is subject to modification through contract principles.”]

3. Felt v. Board of Trustees of Judges Retirement System, 107 Ill. 2d 158, 481 N.E.2d 698 (1985) (IL Supreme Court) involved a Pension Code provision which allowed judges to retire with a pension based on their salary on their last day of service. This was changed by the General Assembly effective in 1982 to a pension based on the average salary during the last year of service. Judges who entered service under the former provision and retired after 1982 said application of the Code change to them violated the Pension Clause and the Contracts Clause. The trial court agreed and so did the Supreme Court. The Illinois Attorney General (arguing for the validity of the legislature’s change) said that the legislature could modify pension benefits under its police power (that is, the power to act for the general health safety and welfare of the public). However, the Supreme Court said that the change caused substantial impairment for the judges’ benefits. Madiar emphasizes that the Supreme Court relied on Kraus (even though it is an Appellate Court decision) in its analysis of this case.

[…can’t diminish terms of contract with pension system… In this particular case, pension is based upon salary of last day of service or last year. “The Clause protects pension benefit rights as an enforceable contractual relationship that is subject to modification through contract principles.”]

4. Buddell v. Bd. of Trustees, State University Retirement System, 118 Ill 2d. 99, 514 N.E.2d 184 (1987) (IL Supreme Court) involved a university employee who entered SURS in 1969. At that time, an employee could purchase service time for years spent in military service. In 1974, the 2011-2013 LWVIL Pension Study - Background 3 of the Pension Code was amended to require current employees to make that purchase of military service time by September of 1974. The employee attempted to purchase his military service years in 1983, and the retirement system denied his request. The trial court reversed. On appeal, the Supreme Court upheld the trial court and held that the employee was entitled to enforce his right to purchase the service credit according to the Pension Code as it was written when the Pension Clause became effective. The Supreme Court said “rights to exercise this option and make these additional payments are contractual rights by virtue of [the Pension Clause] and the legislature cannot divest plaintiff of these rights.” The Supreme Court found that Kraus was in accord with its holding here.

[The courts found that the State can’t diminish terms of contract with the pension systems… As stated, the Pension Code allows employees to purchase service credit for time in the military.]

5. People ex rel. Illinois Federation of Teachers v. Lindberg, 60 Ill. 2d 266, 268-70, 326 N.E.2d 749, 750-51 (1975) (IL Supreme Court): Members of the teachers’ pension systems and members of other systems filed a mandamus action as a class to require the State to pay amounts originally appropriated by the General Assembly to their retirement systems after the Governor exercised his item reduction veto power to reduce the appropriated amounts. They contended that the Pension Clause represented an enforceable, contractual right to have their respective pension systems funded in an actuarially sound manner and that the provisions of the Code were a binding obligation on the legislature that could not be "impaired." The plaintiffs asked the court to restore the original appropriation. The trial court dismissed the class action. The IL Supreme Court concluded that the drafters of the Constitution did “not establish the intent to constitutionally require a specific level of pension appropriations during a fiscal year.”

6. People ex rel. Sklodowski v. State of Illinois, 182 Ill. 2d 220, 695 N.E.2d 374 (1998) (IL Supreme Court) was filed by participants of the State’s five pension systems because of the State’s failure to make the pension contributions prescribed by Public Act 86-274, which committed the State to make additional pension contributions and pay the existing unfunded liabilities of each system over a 40-year period. Plaintiffs claimed that in enacting Public Act 86-274 as part of the Pension Code, the legislature made its funding schedule an enforceable contractual right under the Clause and that failure to follow that schedule impaired their contractual rights. They sought a writ of mandamus to force the IL comptroller and others to comply with the Act’s funding schedule. The Court dismissed the complaint because the requested relief would violate the separation of powers clause under the IL constitution. During the plaintiffs’ appeal, the legislature passed Public Act 88-593, repealing the earlier Act and establishing a less rigorous funding schedule. A motion to dismiss was denied and the Appellate Court revised the trial court’s decision. In its decision, the IL Supreme Court determined that (1) the Clause was included to eliminate the distinction in legal protections afforded to mandatory and optional pension plans prior to the 1970 Constitution; (2) the Clause “makes participation in a public pension plan an enforceable contractual relationship and also demands that the "benefits of that relationship” not be “diminished or impaired” and (3) the contractual relationship is governed by the actual terms of the Pension Code at the time the employee becomes a member of the pension system. However, the Court reversed the appellate court and reaffirmed that the Clause does not create a contractual basis to expect a particular level of funding, but rather a right that they would receive the money due them at retirement.

[A Vested Case Issue: an employee acquires a “vested” right when he or she enters the pension system. (See Lindberg ‘75/McNamee ‘96) “The Pension Clause does not create a contractual basis for participants to expect a particular level of funding.”]

This Pension Study can be found at

The League of Women Voters of Illinois Pension Study Committee:
Sharon Z. Alter, Mary Klonowski , Rinda Allison, Nancy Kosobud, Sandra Bartholmey , Susan Morrison, Cheryl Budzinski, Margaret O’Hara, Hollis Burgess, Dorcy Prosser, Georgia Gebhardt, Nancy Smith, Karin Hribar and Marla Wilson

[It is important to also read about all the court cases that explicitly state: "The Pension Clause protects pension benefit rights as an enforceable contractual relationship that [may be] subject to modification through contract principles." Many court cases, not mentioned in the aforementioned analysis, upheld the decision that an employee acquires a "vested" right when he or she enters the pension system; thus, pension benefits cannot be "diminished or impaired" for not only a retired public employee, but for a working public employee as well.]

For a brief summary of antedated court cases that were challenges of the "Pension Clause":
Please also read Illinois pension reform is without legal and moral justification, an analysis:

Sunday, November 25, 2012

How about having an organized demonstration of 693,000 public employees and their family and friends?

Now that our legislators have finished carving up their turkeys and have recited prayers of thanks for their power, wealth and abundance at their dinner tables (gobble, gobble), they will be discussing how to carve up the public employees' defined-benefit pension plan during the Veto session this week and, with voracious appetites, how to pass “pension reform” during the suitably-named Lame-Duck session in January.

They will be discussing how to “legally” challenge the Illinois and U.S. Constitutions (without ethical consideration or keeping their oath of office); how to shift the state’s pension payment to school districts despite serious consequences; how to eliminate the public employees’ compounded cost-of-living adjustment, especially for current retirees; how to generate a salary cap on current teachers' earnings (shifting the costs to school districts is one sure way to make sure this will also happen); how to increase the retirement age (with the hope that public employees will die before collecting their pensions); how to increase public employees’ contributions to slowly-dying pension systems they helped create; how to pay down the pension debt that they (legislators) machinated; how to entice public employees to opt out of a guaranteed defined-benefit pension plan for a defined-contribution or self-managed savings plan that will never offer public employees a dependable lifetime income; how to continue extortive tax breaks for the wealthiest corporations that finance their campaigns; how to perpetuate lies through media; how to avoid modernizing state and local budgets and their revenue systems…
Did I leave anything out? How about having an organized demonstration of 693,000 public employees and their family and friends before the court battles begin?
For Recent Reviews...
The theft of the public employees’ pensions

Dear Retired Public Employee

The Illinois We Are One coalition is preparing for possible days of action at the State Capitol in Springfield from Thursday, January 3 through Tuesday, January 8. More information will be [available] in the near future. Please save the dates.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

School Reform Address by Karen Lewis

Karen Lewis on CTU’s Vision for Public Education and the Schools Our Students Deserve

"…So what do our students deserve? They deserve school reform that works, that is evidenced-based; it’s not based on a marketing scheme, and it’s certainly not based on somebody’s wishes who sits in a corner office with a spread sheet making decisions.

"Our students deserve smaller classes and a robust, well-rounded, deep, rich curriculum and in-school services that address their social, emotional, intellectual and health needs.

"All of our students deserve culturally-sensitive, non-bias and equitable education… And they deserve professional teachers who are treated as such, fully-resourced school buildings and a system that partners with parents…

"This is not reality in the third largest district in our nation. What our students often get are under-resourced school buildings, a system that alienates their parents and discounts their voice as noise.

"Our students are subjected to ballooning class sizes, asbestos-lined bathrooms, and windows that refuse to open or shut. And despite the growing neighborhood violence, our students do not have enough counselors, social workers, nurses and psychologists.

"They do not have adequate wrap-around services, and students are subjected to school-reform experiment after school-reform experiment. And when those experiments do not work, our students’ parents and educators face the threat of having their schools closed or turned over to corporate interests with little to no education experience…"

Watch Video

Public Education and Reform by David Lentini

What David Lentini learned by studying the history of education

"…1. Americans won’t ever be happy with public education until they understand that education and job training are two different things, and that we can’t have a functional democracy and market economy—the two most intellectually demanding forms of society imaginable—without the sort of education that historically has done the most to produce sound thinking—a traditional liberal arts education that develops the whole intellect.

"2. The reformers will continue their pernicious campaigns until we abandon the childish fantasy that education can be done cheaply, painlessly, and effortlessly by some technical fix. Having earned two degrees in chemistry and a law degree, and having taught my own children as well as the children of others, I know that learning any subject is an intensely personal experience. Good teachers are more like good coaches than sales persons or entertainers. The idea that we can substitute pedagogical training for mastery of actual subject matter, or that filmstrips, radio, television, movies, or computers, or whatever whiz-bang technology comes next can be substituted for actual intellectual engagement between a teacher-master and a student is nothing but charlatanism. We—parents, school boards, and tax payers—have to start saying “no” to the self-proclaimed experts (reformers) who are nothing but shills for corporations that seek to insert their proboscis into the tax revenue stream…"


Wednesday, November 21, 2012

The theft of the public employees’ pensions

Many Illinois citizens are aware that state legislators have not fully funded the public pension systems throughout the years; that instead of paying into the pension systems, they have used that money to pay for other services. Thus, without having to pay for services, state legislators have created an enormous pension debt (or unfunded liability) for the public pension systems in Illinois.

The “Pension Ramp” (Public Act 88-0593), or the repayment schedule of 1995, has also greatly increased the total pension debt or unfunded liability and needs to be re-amortized, though legislators continue to ignore this most significant problem.
The pension debt is exorbitant. Depending upon the discount rate and data from a given source, the debt is perhaps between $83 and $130 billion.
A decrease in the chosen discount rate increases the unfunded liability; the Teachers’ Retirement System trustees recently reduced the discount rate by ½ percent. TRS is approximately 41 percent funded (its funded ratio) using assets at Market value without asset smoothing (Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability, November 2012).
“If retirement benefits and salary increases were the only drivers of the unfunded liability, the state retirement systems would be about 94 percent funded today [because public employees’ benefits are not overly generous]” (Ralph Martire, Center for Tax and Budget Accountability).
Approximately one-third of the total pension payment each year is for “normal costs” to the system; the other two-thirds of the payment is the interest owed on the debt the state incurred for not fully funding the pension systems.
To transfer the “normal costs” of the Teachers’ Retirement System to school districts is to eliminate the state’s role in providing income retirement security for its public employees. This possible absurdity has also been debated by some legislators despite this fact: “The State has the primary responsibility for financing the system of public education” (Article X, Section 1 of the Illinois State Constitution).
Some state legislators and their corporate benefactors are determined to break a constitutional contract with public employees; these state legislators also continue to ignore the essential fact that current revenue growth does not match the state’s need for public services and for payment of debts.
The State of Illinois uses a “flat, low-rate income tax that does not adequately capture income growth, and income tax revenues thus routinely lag behind economic growth. The state relies heavily on a state and local sales tax that is almost exclusively applied to goods and excludes almost all services…
“Because Illinois is chronically short of the revenues it needs to cover its expenses, it has engaged in a number of poor fiscal practices over the years. It has postponed payments to vendors, failed to make adequate pension contributions or borrowed money to make the contributions, securitized [sic] or sold assets, and taken other dubious actions” (the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities).
Besides the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability and the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Illinois revenue restructuring (or reform) is recommended by the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, the National Council of State Legislatures, the Economic Policy Institute, the Center for Policy and Economic Research, the National Association of State Retirement Administrators, the National Institute on Retirement, and United for a Fair Economy.
Many members of the Illinois General Assembly (GA) do not listen to the aforementioned leadership of these reputable organizations; however, many members of the GA do listen to the wealthy members of the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago ( and its Illinois Is Broke), the Civic Federation, the Illinois Policy Institute, Americans for Prosperity, and their ilk.
Cutting pension benefits for public employees, through so-called “pension reform,” will not solve the state’s budget deficits. Creating and passing any bill that diminishes “promised” benefits, such as the compounded cost-of-living adjustment that is already in place for retired and current teachers, is a breach of contract and trust.  It’s a discriminating and unjust forfeiture and theft of one particular group of people in Illinois, and it’s legally and morally wrong.
Though the State of Illinois has a serious pension debt and revenue problem that must be rectified, legal and moral sense dictates that the Illinois General Assembly must align with the U.S. and State Constitutions and sanction the vested rights of its middle-class public employees. Policymakers must also understand the economic impact on Illinois if so-called “pension reform” should pass.
It is a matter of moral and legal concern for every citizen of Illinois to pay attention to any proposed violations of rights and benefits of the state’s 693,000 public employees. It should be of vital concern for all citizens that the government of Illinois would want to prove its contracts are worthless, especially when the “most basic purposes of the impairment [of the contract] clause [Article XIII, Section 5] as well as notions of fairness that transcend the clause itself, point to a simple constitutional principle: government must keep its word” (Laurence H. Tribe, American Constitutional Law).

The state’s constitutional provision, Article XIII Section 5, protects current employees and retirees. So-called “pension reform” is an attempt to break a constitutional contract.
So-called “pension reform” is a pilfering reform. Most everyone realizes this, perhaps even some of the liars and thieves who perpetrate it.
The theft of the public employees’ pensions is coming soon, presumably in the so-called lame-duck session in early January. So what are you going to do about it? 

-Glen Brown

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Cabernet Sauvignon, Ghirardelli, Belgioioso…

My cart is almost empty
except for the bottles of wine,
dark chocolate, Fontina cheese,
and a large box of Stuart Hall envelopes.

The check-out woman
at the ten-items-or-less chute
rings them up and then asks me
for my driver’s license and telephone number.

Instead, I give her my "binder" of poems,
that I carry with me, and she begins reading…
Soon the checker in the next aisle
is browsing over her shoulder and then

the bagger and a woman behind him.
Several grocery carts are revving up behind us,
and someone is shouting something unintelligible
about public pension reform.

I want to ask all of them to escape with me,
perhaps move to a writer’s colony somewhere
in Vermont or New Hampshire where we can
all capture “Negative Capability” together,

but my wife is waiting at home,
and my daughter is probably hungry.
Besides, my poems will have
the wrong return address on them.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Moby Dick by Herman Melville

A great book that most everyone has heard about, not many have read, and only a few have thoroughly enjoyed.

“Call me Ishmael… who against the proud gods and commodores of this earth ever stands forth his own inexorable self… 

“Captain Ahab stood upon his quarter-deck… he looked like a man cut away from the stake, when the fire has over wasted all the limbs without consuming them… 

“All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event—in the living act, the undoubted deed—there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the moldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask…  Sometimes I think there’s naught beyond… 

“Human madness is oftentimes a cunning and most feline thing. When you think it fled, it may have but become transfigured into some still subtler form… 

“Is it that by its indefiniteness it shadows forth the heartless voids and immensities of the universe, and thus stabs us from behind with the thought of annihilation, when beholding the white depths of the Milky Way? Or is it, that as in essence whiteness is not so much a color as the visible absence of color, and at the same time the concrete of all colors; is it for these reasons that there is such a dumb blankness, full of meaning, in a wide landscape of snows—a colorless, all-color of atheism from which we shrink? 

“And when we consider that other theory of the natural philosophers, that all earthly hues—every stately or lovely emblazoning—the sweet tinges of sunset skies and woods; yea, and the gilded velvets of butterflies, and the butterfly cheeks of young girls; all these are but subtle deceits, not actually inherent in substances, but only laid on from without; so that all deified Nature absolutely paints like the harlot, whose allurements cover nothing but the charnel-house within; and when we proceed further, and consider that the mystical cosmetic which produces every one of her hues, the great principle of light, forever remains white or colorless in itself, and if operating without medium upon matter, would touch all objects, even tulips and roses, with its own blank tinge—pondering all this, the palsied universe lies before us a leper; and like willful travelers in Lapland, who refuse to wear colored and coloring glasses upon their eyes, so the wretched infidel gazes himself blind at the monumental white shroud that wraps all the prospect around him. And of all these things the Albino whale was the symbol… 

“We call life when a man takes this whole universe for a vast practical joke, though the wit thereof he but dimly discerns, and more than suspects that the joke is at nobody’s expense but his own. However, nothing dispirits, and nothing seems worthwhile disputing. He bolts down all events, all creeds, and beliefs, and persuasions, all hard things visible and invisible…  

“And as for small difficulties and worrying, prospects of sudden disaster, peril of life and limb; all these, and death itself, seem to him only sly, good-natured hits, and jolly punches in the side bestowed by the unseen and unaccountable old joker… 

“All men live enveloped in whale-lines. All are born with halters round their necks; but it is only when caught in the swift, sudden turn of death, that mortals realize the silent, subtle ever-present perils of life… 

“Now small fowls flew screaming over the yet yawning gulf; a sullen white surf beat against its steep sides; then all collapsed, and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago.”  


Herman Melville (August 1, 1819 - September 28, 1891) 

Melville, Herman. Moby Dick. Eds. Harrison Hayford and Hershel Parker. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1967.

Friday, November 16, 2012

After the election, what’s next for teacher pensions? by TRS Executive Director Dick Ingram

The elections are over and everyone is wondering the same thing about Illinois government: “What’s next?” For Teachers’ Retirement System and its 366,000 members, that question will continue to focus on what must be done to ensure the long-term financial future of TRS, as well as the other state pension systems.

Between now and January 9 – when a newly-elected General Assembly convenes – teachers across Illinois are anticipating that legislators will renew a contentious debate about the future of TRS and possibly take action to overhaul the System’s financial structure.

Our latest audited financial report shows that TRS is a strong retirement fund – in the near term. The System accumulated $3.7 billion in revenue during fiscal year 2012 and ended September with $37.5 billion in assets. TRS paid more than $4.5 billion in benefits last year. For now, teacher pensions are secure.

The long-term sustainability of TRS, however, remains uncertain due to the overall bleak fiscal condition of the State of Illinois. The state’s debts that are expected to surpass $37 billion in 2017 and there are no plans in place to successfully meet that burden. Illinois is further tested by an underperforming economy that creates significant political and fiscal challenges which inhibit tax collections. 

In the future these factors will increasingly undermine the state’s legal responsibility to fully fund teacher pensions annually and to keep retirement promises to TRS members that were first established in 1939.

Against the backdrop of these difficulties, TRS has issued blunt warnings about the serious consequences of two fiscal trends on a collision course: One, the state’s pension debt is growing faster than state revenues. Two, state government has continually failed to provide actuarially-adequate funding to stabilize that pension debt, much less to pay it off.

Despite $37.5 billion in assets, TRS at the end of FY 2012 had only 40.6 percent of what will be needed to pay all anticipated benefits over the next 30 years. When you combine TRS with the state’s other pension systems, Illinois has the worst-funded major pension system in the country. No other state even comes close. TRS’s unfunded liability alone stands at $52 billion. This means that we have only half of the assets needed to pay the benefits due to our members who already are retired.

Along with this warning, the TRS Board of Trustees acknowledged the harsh reality that TRS will be insolvent in the future unless changes are made to stabilize the System. The trustees established a five-point foundation for any future reform. These five cornerstones are:

·         Require the use of standard actuarial practices and formulas to determine funding levels instead of alternate calculations required by state law that artificially lower state contributions. For example, the state’s required contribution to TRS for fiscal year 2014 under state statutes is nearly $1 billion less than the actuarially determined amount, and this only exacerbates the unfunded liability.

·         Require a guarantee in law ensuring that state government fully funds the state’s public pension funds in the future; reversing years of lower-than needed contributions. Without a guarantee the current problem will just grow bigger.

·         Fix a serious financial inequity in the funding and benefits for Tier II members hired after January of 2011. Current pension law significantly penalizes Tier II members and creates future funding imbalances that will run into the billions of dollars.

·         Require that any changes enacted in the pension code be straightforward and avoid complications that unnecessarily slow the administration of benefits so we can apply them fairly to all members. This kind of transparency will help restore the trust that has been eroded by decades of broken funding promises.

·         Require that any changes to the pension code adhere to Article 13, Section 5 of the Illinois Constitution – the pension protection clause. While the question of constitutionality is ultimately decided by the courts, all reform efforts must start by meeting this standard.

The need to act on the state’s pension problems is as urgent as ever. TRS members and the taxpayers of Illinois deserve a solution that puts the System on permanently sound financial footing.

What’s next? The problems facing TRS and the state’s pension systems can be fixed. Unfortunately there are no magic answers awaiting discovery. Many other states, all in far better fiscal circumstances than Illinois, have responded to similar pension challenges by making tough decisions to ensure the future viability of their retirement systems. Illinois has not. Any change in Illinois will require similar tough decisions from everyone. Continued inaction will just make these decisions more difficult in the future.

TRS is a promise keeper. Our fiduciary duty to uphold the System’s long-term stability means we must ensure that retirement promises are kept not only for those already retired, but for veteran teachers in the midst of their careers as well as new teachers just starting out.

TRS has worked hard over the last several years to ensure that state officials and legislators have the data and sound analysis necessary to make these decisions. We have framed the issue and outlined the consequences. What’s next? It is time to answer that question.

[Besides the trustees' "five cornerstones" for reform, "what's next" and imperative? How about rectifying the state's revenue problem and pension debt?]