By SCOTT REEDER
Rantoul Press columnist
SPRINGFIELD – Political courage is a rare commodity in Springfield. And new ideas are rarer still.
When politicians face challenges, they usually dig out the same tired political play books and take the path of least resistance. In regard to funding state pensions, that’s what appears to be happening now.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s deputy Dan Hynes is proposing that we "balance" the budget by shorting payments to the state pension systems, again.
Such ideas become policy when governors confuse the urgent with the important. The most urgent issue on Pritzker’s desk is proposing a budget. But the most important matter is figuring out how to fund the state’s retirement systems, which are teetering on the brink of collapse.
Illinois already has the worst-funded pensions in the nation. Now Pritzker’s administration wants to reduce how much the state pays in next fiscal year to the tune of $800 million?
Good grief. Have we lost all commonsense?
Of course, Hynes didn’t use the words "short" or "underfund."
He called it a "modification" of the Edgar Pension Ramp.
You see, the fiscal mess that is Illinois bears both Republican and Democrat fingerprints.
During Gov. Jim Edgar’s time in office the so-called Edgar Ramp was created, which was touted as a cure-all for the state’s pension woes.
It wasn’t. It isn’t. And it never will be.
It simply delayed the state’s day of reckoning.
In fact, it made things worse.
Back in the 1990s the state’s finances were a mess. Pensions were underfunded in part because annual payments had been skipped and the money spent on other things.
For months, Edgar, legislative leaders and union bosses hashed out how to "solve" this predicament.
And they gave birth to a rat.
In a nutshell, the grand compromise Edgar championed called for having low annual pension payments while he was in office and higher ones when future governors were in office.
He kicked the can down the road. He made his problem that of future governors.
And now Hynes is ripping a page out of that old playbook and talking about adding seven years onto the ramp so it ends in 2052 instead of 2045.
Sure, stretching out the payment schedule would reduce short-term pension costs so the state can spend the money elsewhere. But money diverted today by not putting it into the pension funds results in investment dollars lost that will have to be put in by taxpayers years down the road.
Pritzker spokeswoman Jordan Abudayyeh did not immediately respond to requests for comment about the Hynes’ proposal.
Back in the bad old days, they called such schemes "pension holidays." It’s how we got into this mess in the first place. Payments were put off and investments were not made. Unpaid pension obligations kept piling up and now we are being asked to make up the difference.
But the biggest problem with these pension holidays, or "ramp modifications," is that they fail to address the underlying, flawed state retirement system. Illinois would be much better off if it amended its constitution to move government workers into 401k-like defined contribution plans.
There doesn’t appear to be the political will in Springfield to do such a thing. But plenty of folks are talking about raising taxes.
So hang on to your pocket books.
Scott Reeder is a veteran statehouse journalist and a freelance reporter. ScottReeder1965@gmail.com.