There’s no bigger fiscal hole in America than the one we all face in Illinois, and the state Supreme Court’s pension ruling just confirmed it. Will it force us to quit digging and confront the depths of our debt?
Illinois taxpayers, maybe you managed to avoid the nasty reality, but just before the holiday our Illinois Supreme Court in a strong 6-1 ruling said in a nutshell: Free health care is an unalienable pension benefit, the state constitution says pension benefits shall not be “diminished or impaired,” and in every way possible, questions of law should err on the side of benefitting pensioners.
The Kanerva v. Weems case was not the big test of Senate Bill 1, the pension reform plan signed into law by Gov. Pat Quinn last December, but in affirming that health care coverage can be considered a pension benefit, the court seemed to send every possible signal that politicians cannot change pension benefits previously bestowed under the 1970 constitution.
Public employees who serve us deserve reasonable retirement security. We all do. And while public employees surely are reveling in last week’s ruling, they might not be so happy when the bill comes due and crushes them. Public employees pay taxes, too. So what happens when the debts become so great we literally crumble under the weight?
We Illinoisans might just be well on our way to finding out.
Here, courtesy of the nonpartisan Truth in Accounting’s State Data Lab, is the math reality of our debt crisis in Illinois. We have $175.7 billion in pension and other state debts we currently cannot pay. Divided up amongst all of the state’s current tax-liability-paying residents, if the bill came due today, every Illinois taxpayer would have to cough up $43,400. Remember, that’s per person, not per household. And that amount doesn’t include any added debt from the many municipal pension funds also in trouble such as Chicago’s $20 billion.
Do you have that much socked away in savings or a mutual fund investment? Me neither. Sure, that amount can be spread out over 30 years, but other costs are going to rise during that time, too.
This crisis was the creation of lawmakers from both political parties who, over decades, spent money that should have gone into pension funds. They did so sometimes with the agreement of union management.
The sponsors of Senate Bill 1, the pension law that will eventually end up before the state Supreme Court, hold out hope their arguments that Illinois is in an emergency state will prevail, as well as their argument that they gave employees something back — lower personal contributions — in return for taking away some benefits.
That seems like a longshot.
Things are very wrong when taxpayers are taken hostage by pension debts. In three years, Illinoisans will spend one third of all our state-generated revenue on pensions.
That’s untenable. This is a crisis, and we’re teetering on the cliff. We either raise taxes and drive more of us to move away, or we change the constitution, or we change laws to control double-dipping and too-generous pension benefits approved by local school board members and other officials.
Or all of the above. Waiting any longer is pure insanity.
Madeleine Doubek is chief operating officer of Reboot Illinois.