THE WATCHDOGS: Generous pension benefits only one part of state, city financial crisis
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One of every four retired workers from the state of Illinois, the city of Chicago and the Chicago Public Schools is getting a pension of more than $60,000 a year.
That’s 80,365 people in all.
For 13,240 of them, those checks provide a yearly income of $100,000 or more, a Chicago Sun-Times/Better Government Association analysis of pension records has found. An additional 20,004 have pension incomes totaling between $80,000 and $100,000 a year.
Are these workers to blame for the pension crisis that sparked historic downgrades last week in Chicago’s and CPS’ bond ratings — ratings that might require City Hall to pay $2.2 billion to financial institutions much earlier than planned?
Not by a long shot.
Though some public employees have taken advantage of numerous pension “sweeteners” over the years to boost their benefits, the root of the problem is that government officials kept promising lifetime benefits to workers — and, in many cases, to their surviving spouses should they die — while failing to apportion the taxpayer dollars necessary to keep those pension funds solvent long-term.
In all, the state’s five pension funds, Chicago’s four pension funds and the Chicago teachers pension fund are paying a total of $12.7 billion a year to more than 310,000 people.
The majority of state, city and CPS pensioners aren’t collecting huge retirement checks, the Sun-Times and BGA found.
Nearly 55 percent — about 167,000 people — get pensions of less than $40,000 a year, though many of them are spouses of deceased retirees getting survivors’ benefits, and others’ pensions are small because they worked in government for only a few years.
State government, City Hall and CPS might have been able to avoid their pension problems had government officials steadily deposited taxpayer money into the pension funds over the past several decades.
But not only did politicians keep skipping or shorting the pension funds on those payments — driving them closer to potential insolvency — they also kept borrowing to balance their budgets.
The Chicago Board of Education didn’t contribute any money at all to the pension fund for administrators, teachers and other CPS employees for a full 10 years between 1995 and 2005.
In state government, the situation grew so dire that the federal Securities and Exchange Commission in 2013 charged Illinois with securities fraud, accusing the state in the mid-1990s of enacting a pension-funding plan that “structurally underfunded the state’s pension obligations and backloaded the majority of pension contributions far into the future.”
Later on, under since-imprisoned Gov. Rod Blagojevich, “Illinois misled [bond] investors about the effect of changes to its funding plan, particularly pension holidays enacted in 2005,” according to the SEC.
The state settled the SEC fraud case without having to pay any penalties.
The multibillion-dollar pension shortfalls and mountains of government debt are now providing more headaches for Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who is trying to avoid smacking Chicagoans with a politically unpopular property-tax hike.
After the Illinois Supreme Court on May 8 struck down a recently approved state pension cost-cutting law as unconstitutional, Moody’s Investor Service — one of the Wall Street bond-rating agencies — sounded an alarm, lowering several city and CPS bond ratings to “junk” status, making borrowing through the issuance of bonds more costly.
Though the Supreme Court’s ruling didn’t apply to city pension reforms — which also are being challenged in the courts — Moody’s declared that “the costs of servicing Chicago’s unfunded [pension] liabilities will grow” regardless, and that “the magnitude of the budget adjustments that will be required of the city are significant.”
On top of making it more costly for the city to borrow money, the downgrades could enable financial institutions to demand accelerated payments on a wide range of borrowing schemes that former Mayor Richard M. Daley’s administration engineered. Those deals with banks and other financial institutions depended on the city maintaining much better credit ratings from Wall Street agencies. The city could have to pay off the deals and fork over termination fees when ratings go below a certain ratings threshold.
With the city’s credit rating dropping steadily, Emanuel aides arranged in the past year for a lowering of the termination thresholds on many of the deals with financial institutions.
But the latest downgrade from Moody’s places the city below even the newly lowered termination triggers for almost all of the deals. The situation could require the city to pay nearly $2.2 billion, according to Moody’s and documents filed by the Emanuel administration.
Variable-rate bond sales that allowed the city to borrow heavily could require Chicago to pay more than $1.3 billion to bankers including JPMorgan Chase, Bank of New York and Bank of Montreal, the records show. The financial institutions also could demand nearly $590 million in payments on other loans.
That’s in addition to termination fees the city already has begun paying to end complex deals known as swaps, which were negotiated as part of the bond sales.
Emanuel administration officials said the city has spent about $106 million in recent weeks to end swaps initiated in 2003 and 2007 under Daley.
To begin whittling away at the more than $2 billion it still could owe under other deals, the city plans to refinance $800 million of its debt beginning later this week.
The downgrade from Moody’s means the reworked deals will come at a steeper price than if the city’s bond rating had remained higher, said Brian Battle, director of trading for Performance Trust Capital Partners, a Chicago firm that analyzes bonds for investors. Many institutional buyers cannot purchase bonds from a seller with a junk rating, shrinking the pool of potential investors and raising costs for the city, Battle said.
But Battle predicted that the financial institutions won’t insist on getting their money back right now.
“They will not put their foot down and demand they get paid,” Battle said. “They will work with the city because the city has a lot of leverage to say, ‘Give us some time, or we’ll never do business with you again.’ ”
While the city might be able to manage its debt problems, at least in the short term, rising pension costs could continue to leave less and less money to pay for other civic expenses. City officials expect to pay as much as $1 billion into the city’s four pension funds next year.
The only solutions appear to be to somehow cut expenses — which are made up largely of personnel costs — or generate increased revenues. And the quickest, surest way to raise a lot of revenue could be a property-tax increase.
“The city of Chicago will have to raise property taxes,” Battle said.
While Wall Street hasn’t downgraded state government’s bond ratings in the wake of the Supreme Court’s pension decision, the financial crunch in Springfield is just as bad, if not worse.
The ruling puts into jeopardy the $2.2 billion in savings Gov. Bruce Rauner was counting on by shifting public employees from their current pension programs into less lucrative retirement plans. Rauner already had been pegging the state’s budget deficit at $6 billion.
With lawmakers aiming to meet a May 31 deadline to craft a 2015-2016 spending plan, the General Assembly is on the hot seat. Numerous ideas for closing the budget gap are on the table, from expanding gambling to taxing portions of retirement income.
Unlike the federal government and many states, Illinois exempts all retirement income — including pension income — from its income-tax base, according to the the Civic Federation, a nonpartisan public policy group that studies city, state and CPS finances.