Gov. Bruce Rauner created “another roadblock” for Chicago by vetoing Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s plan to save two of four city employee pension funds, but it’s likely to be reversed in time to “prevent insolvency,” a major credit rating agency said Tuesday.
Standard & Poor’s said it expects the bill that locked in employee concessions and authorized a five-year ramp to required funding levels for the Municipal Employees and Laborers pension funds to be re-introduced and “receive sufficient votes to override a potential governor’s veto.”
The rating agency noted the original bill breezed through the Illinois House on a 91-16 vote and was unanimously approved by the Illinois Senate. After the new General Assembly was sworn in, the vote in the Illinois Senate was 38 to 11.
“Based on the support for the original legislation and a similar police and fire pension plan [vetoed by Rauner and overridden], we think it is likely that the new bill will pass with a veto-proof majority,” Standard & Poor’s wrote.
But S&P noted that “timely action on pension funding is crucial to the city’s budget stability.” Without it, the Municipal Employees and Laborers pension funds are expected to run out of money in 2025 and 2027, respectively, and possibly sooner if “actuarial assumptions” prove too rosy.
“In our view, the plan . . . forestalled such insolvency despite falling short of ensuring long-term sustainability of the plans,” the rating agency wrote. “Though unlikely . . . potential delays to increased contributions beyond 2017 could lead to credit deterioration.”
Last week, Rauner vetoed the bill, citing the “funding cliff” that will leave Chicago’s largest pension fund with a gaping hole of at least $238 million — after a 29.5 percent tax on water and sewer bills is fully phased in — that will require more revenue to honor the city’s ironclad commitment to reach 90 percent funding over a 40-year period.
“This legislation will result in increased taxes on Chicago residents,” Rauner said.
Emanuel responded by condemning the governor’s veto as “irresponsible and irrational.”
“Instead of helping secure the future of our taxpayers and middle-class retirees, the governor chose to hold them hostage,” said Adam Collins, the mayor’s communications director.
Five months ago, Standard & Poor’s affirmed Chicago’s bond rating at three levels above “junk” status, but changed the city’s financial outlook from “negative” to “stable,” thanks to Emanuel’s plan to slap a 29.5 percent tax on water and sewer bills to save the largest of the four funds.
On Tuesday, the rating agency took note of the funding cliff that Rauner contends would lock in yet another property tax increase on Chicago homeowners and businesses who have already been hit with $838 million in property tax hikes for police, fire and teacher pensions.
“We understand that the plan currently does not identify how larger contributions in and beyond 2022 will be accommodated,” S&P wrote, noting that the “variations in pension fund performance” could further widen the gap.
“Despite these risks, we anticipate that the city will still take tangible steps to address near-term pension pressures. But, in the absence of additional measures to ensure the affordability of the contributions and the sustainability of the plan, credit stability could be short-lived.”
In January, Chicago sold $1.16 billion in general obligation bonds, but paid a heavy price for a school financial crisis exacerbated by Rauner’s veto of a bill promising $215 million in pension help.
The spread between Chicago’s interest rate and the interest rate the city would have paid if it had a AAA bond rating ranged from 3.3 percent to 3.5 percent. It was the worst spread in recent memory on a city bond deal.
Even more surprising was the fact that the interest rate on Chicago’s general obligation bonds was a “full percentage point” higher than it was a year ago — before the City Council approved Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s plan to slap a 29.5 percent tax on water and sewer bills to save the largest of four city employee pension funds.
At the time, investors asked Chief Financial Officer Carole Brown how she planned to handle the $230-million plus funding cliff five years out.
“We acknowledge that there will be a need for future revenue increases. . . . We’ll start with the budget. We’ll figure out what the requirements are. And it will be a combination of revenue increases and expenditure reductions to meet our obligations,” Brown said then.
In mid-September, the City Council easily approved the mayor’s plan to slap a 29.5 percent tax on water and sewer bills to save the Municipal Employees pension fund. But the Illinois General Assembly still needs to sign off on employee concessions tied to the deal, as well as the funding schedule for the five-year ramp to actuarially required funding.
The same goes for the mayor’s plan to save the Laborers pension fund, bankrolled by a previously approved, 56 percent tax on monthly telephone bills.
The workers’ concessions call for employees hired after Jan. 1 to become eligible for retirement at age 65 in exchange for an 11.5 percent pension contribution. That’s 3 percentage points higher than employees pay now. Veteran employees hired after Jan. 1, 2011, get to choose between contributing 11.5 percent for the right to retire at 65 or continuing to pay 8.5 percent and waiting until 67 to retire.
The legislation also would require newly elected Chicago aldermen and citywide elected officials to serve longer to achieve the maximum 80 percent city pension.