Friday, December 21, 2012

Pension plan could trim $2 billion from next year's state payment

By Jamey Dunn

Supporters of a new pension reform proposal say it would shave almost $2 billion off the pension payments required by the state next year.

Northbrook Democratic Rep.Elaine Nekritz and Rep. Daniel Biss, an Evanston Democrat, released an analysis of actuarial numbers provided from the state’s pension funds on their proposal, House Bill 6258. The bill would cap the amount of retirement income eligible for cost of living adjustments and delay COLAs until retirees turn 67 or have been retired for five years, whichever happens first. It would also increase the retirement age for employees younger than 46 and increase employee contributions by 2 percentage points. Nekritz and Biss said the measure grew out of talks among rank-and-file House members after negotiations among legislative leaders stalled.

According to the figures released today, the plan would immediately reduce the state’s unfunded pension liability from an estimated $95 billion to $67 billion. Several components of the bill would contribute to shrinking the liability, but Biss said that the changes to the COLAs would be the most significant upfront savings.

The report also said that if school districts had to pick up the costs of retirement benefits that are currently covered by the state, the cost would represent an estimated .52 percent of their overall payroll. HB 6258 contains a cost shift to schools outside of Chicago, as well as to universities and community colleges. The so-called cost shift was the main area of disagreement that held up previous plans. Biss said he was a bit surprised that the cost would be so low. However, those opposed to the cost shift have voiced concern over the idea, no matter what how little it might cost schools or how gradually it would be phased in. They say it would mean an increase in property taxes, and they are worried about unexpected spikes in retirement costs if the pension systems’ investments fail to perform as predicted. The price to universities under the plan would be a larger portion of their total payroll, but Biss said it would never grow to more than 4 percent.

Public employee unions released a report earlier this week that illustrates the flip-side to those estimated cost savings, which amount to reductions in pension income for current and future retirees. According an analysis from the union coalition We Are One, the proposed changes in COLAs and the retirement age would mean that employees younger than 35 would see their retirement benefits reduced by 40 percent by the age of 80. Employees between the ages of 40 and 45 would see the value of their benefits by age 80 reduced by nearly a quarter.

“We have yet to see the governor or legislators produce a pensions proposal that meets the basic standard of being constitutional, much less a plan that is any way fair to the hundreds of thousands of Illinoisans who are either currently receiving a pension or those who are paying into a pension that they expect to receive in the future,” said Illinois Education Association President Cinda Klickna. She said unions believe HB 6258 is unconstitutional.

But Biss argued that no one could predict how judges will interpret the provision in the state’s Constitution that protects pension benefits. “There’s a wide variety of diverging views on the subject,” he said. “There are as many different constitutional theories on this issue as there are [reform] proposals.” Biss said the best lawmakers can do is pass a plan that they think is solid public policy and has the greatest chance of holding up in court.

The unions pitched their own plan, which would raise billions in new revenues by eliminating corporate tax breaks and asking employees to increase their contributions by 2 percentage points. “You cannot solve this problem with less money, period. You just simply can’t. You can’t cut your way out of it,” said Toby Trimmer, director of political activity for the Illinois Federation of Teachers. “And the only thing that has at this stage of the game been presented to us over the course of the last year or so has been an approach to try to cut their way out of it through our members’ benefits, and you just can’t do it.” Trimmer said plans that rely only on benefit reductions that would be made without the approval of unions are “unconstitutional” and “morally unfair.”

Biss said that he is open to the idea of looking for new revenues and wants to work with the unions on the proposal. “That’s an almost $100 billion hole. Yes, you have to go wherever you can to fill it.” He said the only options for lawmakers are raising new revenue, cutting retiree benefits or cutting other spending in the state budget. “I’m a big believer in balance, and I think we have to do all three.” However, Biss noted that much of the revenue from the income tax increase is being spent on pension payments, and legislators have made recent budget cuts. “So it seems to me that the next rational step to take is on benefit reform.”

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