CHICAGO — Warning that Illinois faces a financial meltdown over its rising pension obligations, a prominent Chicago business group is intensifying its push for pension reform with an advertising campaign aimed at pressuring lawmakers to act during their fall veto session later this month.
The effort includes a media drive involving billboards, videos and television advertising. It is part of the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago’s “Pension Reform First” movement, aimed at increasing public and business pressure on lawmakers to act during their six-day veto session. The group first launched a pension campaign known as “Illinois Is Broke” last year.
“The clock is ticking, and Illinois residents are feeling the negative impact of these unsustainable pension programs more and more every day,” said Civic Committee president Ty Fahner in a statement. “In order to fulfill our pension obligations, the state continues to divert funds from essential social services and education programs that Illinois residents depend on every day.”
The bipartisan group that includes the city’s top business leaders believes lawmakers should address pension reforms to avert a fiscal crisis before taking up other issues on its agenda, such as budget changes and revisions to a gambling expansion bill approved last spring by lawmakers.
“Before we address tax increases, casinos, or other issues, we must tackle pension reform. This is truly the only issue that impacts each and every Illinois resident,” Fahner said.
The group supports SB 512, which was headed towards approval last spring before it stalled amid union opposition. The bill would protect the accrued benefits already earned by current employees.
Going forward, the state would offer a three-tiered system under which current employees could pay more to keep their current pension benefits, keep more of their salary in exchange for reduced benefits, or shift to a defined contribution 401(k)-like investment plan. It would require the state to pay down its current unfunded liabilities over time based on a constant percentage of state tax revenues.
The bill would also cover university employees, teachers, and most Chicago and Cook County employees. Police and firefighters in Chicago and downstate were excluded. Unions argue the changes violate state constitutional protections afforded to pensions, which cannot be impaired or diminished. Backers in the Illinois House and business believe the reforms pass legal muster because they don’t affect accrued benefits, only those benefits not yet earned by employees.
The state owes $4.6 billion in pension payments in fiscal 2012, a figure that’s expected to grow to as much as $20 billion by 2045 under the current funding schedule adopted in 1995. Backers of the reforms said the changes could cut the $20 billion to about $12 billion. Illinois holds the distinction among states of having a retirement plan with the lowest-funded ratio, 45.4%, with $75.7 billion of unfunded liabilities.
A separate bill, SB 175, would raise retiree health care contributions but that also stalled. Illinois has an actuarially based unfunded liability for other post-employment benefits of $27.1 billion. The annual required contribution to fully fund the liability in 2009 was $1.8 billion, but the state contributed just $604 million.
The state’s growing pension obligations are cited in rating agency reports as one of its most daunting credit challenges.