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Cross and Rutherford electoral losers, but pension winners

Although state Rep. Tom Cross and state Treasurer Dan Rutherford lost elections for higher office, they may still be winners.

That’s because the two Republican politicians can begin collecting pensions after they leave office this coming week — more than $115,000 a year for Rutherford and more than $81,000 for Cross.

What’s more, by 2035 each could have pocketed millions after contributing less than $200,000 a piece to the pension system.

Both men are part of the General Assembly Retirement System, which is a branch of the State Retirement Systems. The General Assembly system is among the most generous taxpayer-supported pension plans in the state.

Rutherford ran for governor and finished last in the Republican primary last year after a former employee made allegations of sexual harassment and being forced to do political work. The employee filed a federal lawsuit against Rutherford that’s currently pending.

Rutherford, 59, can begin collecting an annual pension of $115,318 when he leaves office Monday. He contributed $170,637 out of pocket, according to the pension fund, where retirement benefits are covered by employee contributions, pension fund investments and taxpayers.

The outgoing treasurer could collect roughly $3.3 million in pension payments if he lives to age 80 and takes his annuity immediately – assuming pension reforms aren’t enacted.

Rutherford spent 18 years in the General Assembly and served one term as treasurer. With only hours left in office Rutherford could not be reached for comment.

“Treasurer Rutherford is not available thanks,” his spokeswoman wrote in an email to the Better Government Association.

State Sen. Mike Frerichs will be sworn in as treasurer Monday after narrowly beating Cross in November’s general election.

Cross, 56, is able to cash in as well. The former Illinois House minority leader will be eligible for an $81,016 pension when he leaves office Wednesday. Cross contributed $184,007 to the pension fund.

In 2035, his annual pension will be $146,324, and he will have collected more than $2.3 million in pension payments – again assuming he elects to take his annuity right away, he lives that long and pension reforms don’t happen in the meantime.

Tom Cross in a debate with Mike Frerichs at the City Club of Chicago in October. File Photo.| Al Podgorski / Chicago Sun-Times

In total, Cross has about 22 years in the system.

In addition to his legislator pension, Cross also has almost 10 years in the Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund. He previously worked for the Kendall County state’s attorney. He contributed $7,065 to that pension system and is eligible for an annual pension of $6,336, according to the Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund.

Cross did not return messages.

As we previously reported, Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn leaves office Monday and is eligible for a $136,000-a-year pension. Quinn could recoup his investment of $190,847 in less than two years. If he lives another 20 years, he would collect a total of more than $3.6 million. (This also assumes there’s no pension reform, and he takes his annuity immediately, though it’s not clear whether he’ll do that.)

Neither Cross nor Rutherford have filed paperwork to start collecting their pensions, according to Tim Blair, executive secretary of the State Retirement Systems.

The 3 percent annual cost-of-living adjustments, or COLAs, are why the Cross and Rutherford pensions both nearly double in 21 years.

It’s also partly why the pension funds are in horrible shape. Other reasons: The state skipped payments to the funds and assumed investment returns that didn’t materialize.

The state’s five employee-pension funds collectively carry an unfunded liability of more than $100 billion. In layman’s terms, that means the systems aren’t even close to having enough money to pay future pension obligations. That $100 billion figure – when compared against government revenues – is the worst in the country, according to a recent report from credit ratings agency Moody’s Investors Service.

Quinn and the General Assembly passed legislation in 2013 that would slash the 3 percent COLA and raise the retirement age. That bill is currently being challenged by labor groups and is before the state Supreme Court. A lower court recently ruled the reforms were unconstitutional. Oral arguments are expected in March with the state’s high court, according to a spokesman for the Supreme Court.

That reform measure, which Cross voted against, would not impact his or Rutherford’s initial pensions but would likely diminish their future take if it’s deemed constitutional.

This column – a regular feature called The Public Eye, appearing on the Chicago Sun-Times web site – was written and reported by the Better Government Association’s Patrick Rehkamp. He can be reached at prehkamp@bettergov.org or (312) 386-9201. Rehkamp’s Twitter handle is @patrickrehkamp.