Andy Shaw: Cushy pensions for CTA insiders left you standing in the cold

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White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett, former chair of the CTA board, started picking up a $35,000 annual CTA pension when she turned 50. Chandler West/For Sun-Times Media

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It’s infuriating to end up on the wrong side of a bad deal.

Paying more for a used car than it’s worth, buying furniture a week before it goes on sale — even letting grocery coupons expire.

Nobody likes to spend money unnecessarily.

OPINION Follow @@andyshawbga

But Chicago taxpayers and transit riders are doing just that — footing the bill for the “sweetened” pensions of former six-figure transit executives and part-time board members who don’t deserve them.

That’s my candid assessment after revisiting a recent investigation by the Sun-Times and the Better Government Association.

We documented nearly $100 million in arguably unjustifiable pension benefits to Chicago Transit Authority officials over the past 15 years.

Most of it’s gone to former CTA executives who were able to start collecting pensions at age 50, or even younger, after agreeing to retire early.

That includes Dorval Carter, whose six-figure pension kicked in after he traded his career at the CTA for another six-figure government job in Washington.

Carter returned to Chicago last year to run the CTA.

The incentive program was supposed to save money by replacing expensive administrators with new, cheaper hires, but CTA still hasn’t provided savings data.

There were also pension payouts of more than $3 million to former CTA board members, including one-time chairman and current White House advisor Valerie Jarrett, who was only 50 when she started collecting an annual pension of $35,000.

Board members also receive annual salaries of at least $25,000 for their limited service.

Overall, it’s a sweet deal for CTA insiders, but it leaves a sour taste in the mouths of taxpayers and riders who pick up the tab, and it epitomizes a pension abuse problem that’s pervasive in Illinois.

Too many officials at every level of government — from school districts to municipalities to the state legislature — have cavalierly boosted retirement benefits to enrich themselves and their colleagues, and to score political points with employee groups.

That chicanery contributes to the worst state pension crisis in the country.

Recipients of the largesse, including CTA beneficiaries, claim they’ve done nothing wrong — they’re simply following the rules and taking advantage of the available benefits.

That’s disingenuous because they make the rules, and it’s just plain wrong.

Serving on a part-time government board doesn’t make you a public employee entitled to a pension, and well-compensated executives don’t deserve early retirement packages that aren’t available to rank-and-file workers.

Fortunately, state lawmakers realized that — eliminating the CTA’s costly retirement program in 2008 and ending pensions for new board members in 2013.

But that didn’t affect Carter, Jarrett or hundreds of others who were already “grandfathered” into lifetime benefits.

And it didn’t outlaw abusive practices at thousands of other government agencies around Illinois, so Springfield legislators have a lot of unfinished business.

It’s time to prohibit every unjustifiable sweetener — end-of-career salary bumps, larding unused sick and vacation days onto pension calculations, and giving retirement benefits to quasi-government employees.

Gimmicks like that, and the CTA giveaway, promise short-term savings but actually create unsustainable long-term liabilities.

The BGA has advocated forcefully, and with some success, for an end to pension abuse, but it’s still widespread.

And, as the Illinois Supreme Court made clear, pensions are protected by the state constitution — once they’re granted they can’t be taken back.

There’s no easy way to alleviate the overall pension crisis, and government employees are certainly entitled to fair retirement benefits, but lawmakers have no excuse for letting the abuse continue.

We’re still on the wrong end of a bad deal.

Andy Shaw is President & CEO of the Better Government Association.

Email: ashaw@bettergov.org

Follow Andy Shaw on Twitter: Follow @@andyshawbga

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