Usually, what comes out of the mouth of a Chicago mayor has little real effect on the rest of Illinois. We’re part of the same state, but are thousands of miles apart on almost every issue.
When Mayor Lori Lightfoot delivered her State of the City address, she discussed problems with contributions to the city’s pension funds. They’re so bad, she said, that state lawmakers need to step in.
Hip hip hooray! Finally, an issue and a megaphone big enough to catch the ears of those in Springfield.
For therein lies the problem and the solution.
A recent Chicago Tribune editorial put the issue in perspective: “Since the May 2015 Illinois Supreme Court ruling striking down pension changes that were projected to save taxpayers $160 billion over 30 years, the legislature has done nothing to meaningfully address alarming unfunded liabilities in the state’s system and in hundreds of local government funds. ... [A] recent Wirepoints examination found that 57% of 630 downstate police and fire pension funds showed funding ratios of less than 60%. Many are in far worse shape, even for governments meeting their statutorily required contributions. ...”
How to fund pensions, how to catch up with pension payments, and whether pensions should accrue at their current rates are key to fixing the issue. But it’s beyond dicey: raise taxes? No. Raid another fund to make up the difference? No. Give retirees a less stable fund? No. Because the taxpayers, the people served by the other funds, the retirees – they all vote. And lawmakers hear them, loud and clear. So our Springfield friends avoid that third rail like the political death trap it likely is.
But non-action isn’t the right course, either. Legislative posts aren’t lifetime appointments (or shouldn’t be). Sometimes, the hard choices are those that best serve a constituency or the state as a whole. This is one of those times.
Crain’s Chicago Business, weighing in on Lightfoot’s position, said this: “The hard truth is Illinois needs a constitutional amendment to fix the pension clause. The mayor may not be willing to say it in so many words, but this is the relief she needs, and the governor, despite his protestations, needs it, too. He must rethink his previously ironclad opposition to a pension amendment. ... [S]hort of the sort of meaningful pension solution that only a constitutional amendment can deliver, it’s fair to wonder whether Pritzker’s job will be worth having come 2022.”
Lawmakers return to Springfield Oct. 28. It’s time for Downstate to make some noise.