DeKALB – Bond repayment debt in Illinois has risen from $12 billion to $44 billion in the past decade, the unfunded pension and retiree health care liabilities total $140 billion and the state’s total debt has Illinois families on the hook for $40,000 each.
But Illinois Treasurer Dan Rutherford is not ready to throw in the towel.
“I am the most optimistic guy you’ll meet ... I love this state,” Rutherford said. “But this is where we have to dispense the tough love. There is a lot left we have to do to make [the state] better.”
Rutherford was joined by state Rep. Robert Pritchard, R-Hinckley, and state Sen. Christine Johnson, R-Shabbona, on Tuesday at the DeKalb County Community Outreach Building for a roundtable discussion on the state’s fiscal condition and strategies to improve it. About 40 people attended the event.
Rutherford touched on subjects that included the need for pension reform, better business policies, stopping long-term borrowing and cutting “low-hanging fruit” such as government cellphones and vehicles to show the public that lawmakers
are serious about changing the status quo.
As an international contract negotiator for ServiceMaster, Rutherford said the practice of forming a full deal is desperately needed in Springfield. He pointed to the income tax increase in 2010 as an example of a bad deal because lawmakers took on needed money before addressing a single problem that led the state to the financial shortfall it faced.
He said bipartisanship is possible and added he supported Gov. Pat Quinn when he called for pension reform to be completed before the end of the spring session. But the Legislature failed to address the issue before adjournment, and Rutherford said it likely will not happen until there is a “pressure point” to force action.
“Hopefully after the November elections there will be enough political spine in the capital city,” Rutherford said.
Some attendees were skeptical of Rutherford’s proposed fiscal strategies. Herb and Irene Rubin, retirees of Northern Illinois University, had a spirited exchange with Rutherford and said new revenue streams, such as a wider tax base on services, and cuts to inefficient business incentive programs, such as EDGE, should be part of the solution.
Debbie Kern, who also receives a state pension, was more open to changes in the system but said the problem started because of lawmakers’ decisions.
“In my mind it can be equated to the parents who wait until their child is 18 to save for college,” she said. “But we have to look at hard [budget] cuts and do what needs to be done.”
Rutherford said he was confident the state could not begin to turn around its financial condition without pension reform, specifically changing from a defined benefit to a defined contribution option. Changing pension formulas is the only way to stop the deficit from growing, he said.
Other attendees were impressed with Rutherford’s ideas and said he represented the kind of politician Illinoisans needed to research more.
Barbara Wojnicki, chairwoman for the Kane County Republicans, said she hopes to see Rutherford move up from treasurer.
“I think he should run for governor,” she said.