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The News Gazette: Jim Dey: Legislative Pensions Generous to Point of Insolvency

May 2, 2018 08:30 AM
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Jim Dey: Legislative Pensions Generous to Point of Insolvency

Wed, 05/02/2018 - 7:00am | Jim Dey
 
As a self-appointed fiscal watchdog who keeps track of how the government spends the public's money, Adam Andrzejewski makes it a point to report bad news.
 
It's not that he wouldn't like to report good news. But when it comes to the subjects of Illinois and public finance, there's not much of that to go around. Take his latest report on the lavish pensions paid to state elected officials.
 
Voters "need to know exactly how bad it is," said Andrzejewski, chief executive officer and founder of OpenTheBooks.com.
 
The organization's goal is to follow "every dime online in real time" that is spent by all 50 states as well as the federal government.
 
He occasionally takes an in-depth look at individual public entities to see how they spend tax money. That's what Andrzejewski did in his latest report on what he calls Illinois' "pension palace" for public officials.
 
He argues it is "absolutely" necessary to end what he calls "lavish" pensions paid to state legislators and statewide elected officials.
 
"Part-time, public service should not come with a gold-plated, taxpayer-funded legislative pension payout," he said.
 
But it does.
 
Here are some examples. Former Govs. Jim Edgar, Jim Thompson and Pat Quinn are receiving state pensions of, respectively, $165,852, $156,458 and $141,278.
 
Altogether, Edgar receives $311,000 per year in state payments that include another $83,000 from the State University Retirement System and part-time pay of $62,796 from the University of Illinois.
 
But those numbers barely scratch the surface of a pension system easily gamed by legislators, who spike their pensions by taking other state jobs after leaving the General Assembly.
 
Andrzejewski reports that "the largest pension of all time" goes to former state Sen. Arthur Berman, who took a high-paying education job after leaving the legislature. He collects a legislative pension of $250,191 annually. Andrzejewski said that is "four times more than he ever made as a Springfield lawmaker."
 
Just like the state's other retirement systems, the General Assembly Retirement System is under tremendous financial pressure.
 
It's just 14 percent funded in terms of its ability to meet future obligations. It was 17 percent funded two years ago, and its financial strength is declining steadily even as the state contributed $21 million last year to shore it up.
 
Although legislators have for years happily hopped on the pension bandwagon, public anger over its generosity has turned the system into a political hot potato. More recently elected legislators have opted not to join.
 
"Citizen pressure, watchdog groups and pressure from their fellow legislators have made it popular for some legislators to decline their lavish benefits," Andrzejewski said.
 
Of the 177 members of the Illinois House and Senate, 137 have enrolled in the pension list.
 
The enrollees represent the apex of bipartisanship.
 
Area Republicans in the system include state Sens. Dale Righter, Bill Brady, Chapin Rose and Jason Barickman, and House members Chad Hays, Dan Brady and Tom Bennett.
 
Area Democrats who signed up for the pension include state Rep. Carol Ammons and state Sen. Scott Bennett. State Treasurer Michael Frerichs, a former Democratic member of the Illinois Senate, also enrolled in the pension system.
 
Among the legislators not enrolled are Democrats Andy Manar, Tom Cullerton and Marty Moylan, and Republicans Brad Halbrook, Avery Bourne, Reggie Phillips and Jim Oberweis.
 
The top 10 lawmaker pensions are Arthur Berman, $250,191; Edward Petka, $198,355; Judy Erwin, $173,998; John Friedland, $172,981; Jim Edgar, $165,852; Gary Hannig, $160,161; Roland Burris, $158,852; Jim Thompson, $156,458; James Philip, $155,721; and Emil Jones, $154,969.
 
Those pension figures include the 3 percent annual cost-of-living increase that legislators approved more than two decades ago. The annual increases are a major source of the public pension system's financial woes, exemplifying legislative ignorance of how the system is funded.
 
Legislators passed the cost-of-living plan without giving any consideration of how to pay for it.
 
Now, between the annual increases and legislators gaming the system to boost their payouts, the state's public pension systems are cumulatively underfunded by $130 billion.
 
Given its assets and future obligations, Andrzejewski said the legislators' pension system is "unsustainable" and will inevitably collapse absent some dramatic changes.
 
"It's going to cost (taxpayers) hundreds of millions of dollars to make the system sustainable for a small number of people," Andrzejewski said.
 
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