One of the big problems Gov.-elect Bruce Rauner will face is what to do about the state’s public pension crisis.
He doesn’t need to go any farther than a member of his own transition team, Glenn Poshard, to get a close-up look at some of the factors fueling the crisis.
Poshard, 69, gets one of the biggest pensions of any former Illinois elected official — over $200,000 a year. That’s more than the $177,412 salary paid to Gov. Pat Quinn.
If he lives to 80, Poshard’s retirement benefits will have ballooned to an estimated $280,000 a year.“I can tell you, I worked hard my whole life,” said the downstate Democrat, who started out as a public school teacher, held elected office as a state senator and congressman and was a top administrator at Southern Illinois University. “I never tried to game the system.”
Indeed, Poshard followed the rules. And the rules allowed him to boost his years of government service — and his pension — by counting unused sick time and buying pension credits at a fraction of their cost to the state for jobs he held in college and for nearly two years of his Illinois Senate term he didn’t serve after being elected to Congress, according to interviews and records obtained by the Chicago Sun-Times and the Better Government Association.
The key element in how Poshard built his enviable retirement cushion was winning election to the state Senate. Of all Illinois state pensions, none is as generous as the one legislators created for themselves — the General Assembly Retirement System, or GARS.
That allowed Poshard to start his retirement with a pension of 85 percent of his state salary when he started collecting his pension in 2003 after retiring for the first time from SIU.
Poshard also understood early on that there were ways to boost his pension. At 42, while running for Congress in 1988, then-state Sen. Poshard contacted GARS about his future pension. According to a handwritten note in his file at the pension fund, Poshard “was leaving town & wanted to know right away” what it would cost to buy pension credit for the two years left in his Senate term. The note said: “situation discussed at length during office visit of 11/17/88.”
Poshard paid $7,860 to get pension credit for 23 months of the Senate term he didn’t serve. That gave him credit for seven years in the Senate, though he served five. It was money well spent, boosting his current pension by $20,000 a year, records show.
Poshard later bought 1.25 years of pension credits in the State Universities Retirement System for jobs he had nearly 30 years earlier while an undergraduate at SIU. The credits cost him $5,598. They add $5,000 a year to his pension.
He also was allowed to buy 2.5 years of credit from the university pension system for his time in the U.S. Army in the 1960s. He wasn’t in the Army long enough to qualify for a military pension.
“I bought in what they told me I could buy in,” Poshard said of the steps he took to boost his pension. “I did what was possible.”
Also boosting his state pension: He was able to apply unused sick time from his days as a college employee and as a teacher to tack on 1.73 years years of service.
Poshard gets $189,979 a year in retirement pay for 30 years of work or other credit in three state pension systems — more than $1.4 million since he started drawing them in 2003, when he retired for the first time from SIU before turning 58.
He also gets a $15,000-a-year federal pension for 10 years in Congress.
Poshard’s state pension payout — initially about $140,000 a year — has grown by $50,000 a year thanks to Illinois’ automatic 3 percent-a-year cost-of-living adjustment, or COLA.
Poshard started as a teacher, then served in Springfield and Congress before losing the 1998 race for governor to George Ryan. Poshard, who has a doctorate in higher education administration from SIU, landed the vice chancellor job there in 1999.
After retiring from that post in 2003, Poshard returned in January 2006 as SIU’s president — the post he held until retiring again in June 2014, when he was making $333,360.
He continued to collect $100,000 a year in state and federal pensions during those eight years. He wasn’t allowed to collect the portion of his university pension funded by SIU during that time, but SIU more than compensated for that by giving him an annual $55,066 retirement “annuity” each of those years.
He was able to use the $165,000 salary he made as SIU’s vice chancellor as the base salary for his pension for his entire career — including his time as a teacher, where he never made more than $38,000 a year, and as a state senator, where his pay never topped $36,000.
His current pension includes $76,910 a year from GARS, $65,594 from SURS and $47,475 from the Teachers’ Retirement System of Illinois — all supported by state taxpayers, as well as deductions from employees’ paychecks and the pension funds’ investment income. Taxpayers cover roughly 90 percent of Poshard’s state pension.
“I’m grateful for what I got,” Poshard said. “I can’t pass judgment on whether the overall pension was too generous.”
Poshard’s role on the Rauner transition team doesn’t involve pensions, according to a spokesman for the governor-elect, who hasn’t offered a detailed plan for dealing with the pension crisis.
“Dr. Poshard has a tremendous amount of knowledge about southern Illinois, as well as the university system, and is respected across party lines,” the Rauner spokesman said. “His role with the transition is voluntary and not focused on pension issues.”
This story is by Chuck Neubauer, Patrick Rehkamp and Sandy Bergo of the Better Government Association.