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Our View: State bumbles state pension fixes again

Published: Thursday, Jan. 10, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT

The best thing that can be said about the lame-duck session of the Illinois General Assembly is that lawmakers, at least, did no further harm.

They didn’t do anything to fix Illinois’ sinking public pension systems or dire fiscal situation, sadly. But the way things went down during the last lame-duck session two years ago – when Gov. Pat Quinn and Democratic legislators rammed through a massive, last-minute tax increase – we might just chalk up “doing no harm” as a win.

Or a tie, anyway. And that says pretty much everything that needs to be said about the sad state of governing in the Land of Lincoln.

Kidding aside, pension reform must be the top priority for the new General Assembly that was sworn in Wednesday. Illinois’ five public pension systems are underfunded by more than $96 billion. It was less than a year ago when that number was $83 billion.

With every day of inaction, it will climb.

While it was far from perfect, we actually liked some elements of a pension reform bill that was being debated earlier this week.

The bill was an amended version of one proposed by Rep. Elaine Nekritz, D-Northbrook. It seems like a good starting point for the new General Assembly.

Among other things, the bill would push back the age that retirees can get their automatic 3 percent cost-of-living increases to 67 years. It also would be applied only to the first $25,000 of a retiree’s pension. The annual increase actually should be less than 3 percent and should kick in even later, but the proposal is better than what we have now.

The bill would increase employee contributions to their own pensions by 2 percent of salary, with the first 1 percent kicking in the first year and the second in year two. We’re not sure if this is enough, but some increase is absolutely necessary.

The biggest problem with the bill is that it did little to address the current underfunded liability.

Some lawmakers argued the bill is unconstitutional as written and the state risks a court challenge if it passed. The Illinois Constitution says pension benefits cannot be diminished, but it’s better to meet that challenge head on than to keep putting off meaningful reform and risk insolvency.

When it was clear Nekritz’s bill didn’t have enough votes, Quinn presented a bizarre, last-minute proposal that would have lawmakers turn over responsibility for fixing pensions to an unelected supercommittee.

We’re not sure what to make of this desperate idea other than to say it’s further evidence that Quinn is in over his head.

Here’s where we stand: For the new General Assembly, pension reform must be the top priority. The threat of a court challenge and more bad ideas from Quinn can’t get in the way.

Don’t wait until the end of this new session. Get it done right. And get it done now.

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