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7/17/2013 2:15:00 PM
Biss Outlines Pension Problems, Hears Constituents' Concerns
By Mary Helt Gavin

The heat was on during the afternoon of July 14 – a sultry summer afternoon outside, and, in the Levy Center’s auditorium constituents of State Senator Daniel Biss again expressed their anger, worry and frustration about the State’s pension mess.

Sen. Biss is a member of a bipartisan conference committee formed after it was apparent that the issue was stalemated in the State legislature; and people on both sides, he said, had become "entrenched." The committee is supposed to craft legislation that will address the pension crisis and be likely to be approved by both houses of the General Assembly.  "Our responsibility is to … come up with something based on a new framework and do it in a way that ‘un-entrenches’ [politicians] and stakeholders on all sides," he said.

The committee, created last month, has met three times but missed its July 9 deadline to draft a compromise bill. Sen. Biss said he expects the committee to complete its work within the next few weeks. 

A Brief History

Sen. Biss traced the pension problem back to the mid-1990s, when then-Governor Jim Edgar created a "pension ramp" that spread over 50 years the state’s mandatory contributions to its public pension funds. The legislators at that time were "intentionally shorting our systems for over a decade," said Sen. Biss. Thus the mess was "partly caused by deliberate acts of legislators because it was, frankly, more convenient than doing the hard work of paying [the debt] down."

By 2008, the pension funds were underfunded by "$50 to $60 billion," said Sen. Biss. The recent financial crisis played a hand in increasing the overall unfunded liability to its present $100 billion. Annual payments on that whopping number constitute "about 20 percent of our spending," he said.  Contributions to the pension fund were $4.8 billion in 2012 and $5.7 billion in 2013 and will be $6.7 billion in fiscal year 2014.

Some estimates peg the unfunded liability at much higher amounts if, for example, a lower rate of return were used in estimating the unfunded liability.

The unfunded liability, together with the annual payments, "left many legislators thinking that something else has to be done," said Sen. Biss.

Is Change Possible?

Whether the Illinois Constitution permits changes in public pensions – and, if so, to what degree – is being debated in some legal circles and among legislators. "Article 13, Section 5 of the Illinois Constitution states ‘Pensions shall not be diminished,’" said Sen. Biss. In 2010 the legislature created a "second tier" of pensions for those hired after the effective date. The second-tier pensions changed benefits and retirement age, among other things.

Two central questions seem to divide legislators in addressing the pension of persons employed before 2010: "Are pensions untouchable?" and "Does the state have to make all the payments?" The answers so far appear inconclusive or at least not agreed-upon.

In May of this year, the House passed a bill that would reduce the State’s pension liability by raising the retirement age, reducing the cost-of-living increases for retirees and making employees pay more for their pensions. The House bill is estimated to save $187 billion over time.

The Senate passed a bill that gives state employees and retirees a choice. One option is they may give up cost-of-living increases on their pension payments in exchange for keeping health-care coverage. The Senate bill is estimated to save $57.6 billion over time.

The House and Senate have each rejected the other’s approachDuring the afternoon, Sen. Biss described several approaches to that constitutional question. One approach, from a four-person working group convened in 2012, suggested that pensions, but not other perks such as the right to participate in health care programs, are protected.

A second approach is found in a 2012 bill sponsored by Elaine Nekritz of Northbrook and co-sponsored by Mr. Biss when he was a State Representative. That bill was premised on the idea that "pensions are protected by the Constitution, and so are other things such as the right to public education and the right to a clean environment," he said. The underlying idea seems to hint at something Sen. Biss has been saying for several months: Pensions are on the level of other basic rights guaranteed by the state, and, when cuts must be made, the sacrifice must be shared by as many people as possible. "I’ve come to the view that an appropriate balancing of these rights would help us to offer a balance of services," he said.

Sen. Biss also described a third approach: "Most encouragingly," he said, "the Institute of Government and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois [has come up with another study] based crucially on another Constitutional theory: The Constitution protects pensions prospectively and retrospectively but says you can make changes as long as you provide ‘consideration’ – something in exchange."

The bipartisan conference committee is charged with finding a compromise and an approach that will satisfy constitutional concerns. Presumably, the members will be sifting through these approaches and perhaps others.

Shifting the Burden to School Districts

One idea that has been floated for more than a year is that local school districts rather than the state should be responsible for paying the "normal cost" (e.g., the cost attributable to the current year) of funding pensions of teachers in the Teachers’ Retirement System. Several proposals would shift the normal cost, but not the unfunded liability, to school districts.  Sen. Biss has previously indicated that he would support shifting the normal cost to the local school districts. He said on July 14, though, that he would support that measure only if it were phased in, not if the burden were to be shifted to the school districts at once.

Next Steps

During the hour-and-a-half question-and-answer period, most speakers said they did not want their pensions or benefits reduced in any way. Some said they had forgone other, higher-paying jobs and taken jobs with the state so they could have a pension in retirement. Others said they felt their pensions were owed to them because of their years of hard work.

Sen. Biss praised public-sector workers and decried the tendency to "demonize" them and blame them for the pension mess. In trying to work out a compromise, he said, there are "three critical areas: We need to find a way forward for both parties [and resolve the Constitutional issue]. We must be able to say, ‘We’re not going to do this again [the plan must work long-term].’ And we must share the sacrifices as equitably as possible."


Reader Comments

Posted: Saturday, July 27, 2013
Article comment by: Gary Reber

There are solutions: Please see my article "Democratic Capitalism And Binary Economics: Solutions For A Troubled Nation and Economy" at or follow me on Facebook at and

Also please see my article "The Absent Conversation: Who Should Own America?" published by The Huffington Post at and by OpEd News at

Also see "The Path To Eradicating Poverty In America" at and "The Path To Sustainable Economic Growth" at And also "Second Income Plan" at

Also see the article entitled "The Solution To America's Economic Decline" at and "Education Is Critical To Our Future Societal Development" at And also "Achieving The Green Economy" at Also see it complete with the footnotes at

Also see "Financing Economic Growth With 'FUTURE SAVINGS': Solutions To Protect America From Economic Decline" at

Posted: Friday, July 26, 2013
Article comment by: Al Moncrief

A pension reform bill in Illinois will not pass court muster if a "less drastic" reform is available to the Legislature. Numerous "less drastic" public pension remedies are indeed available to the Illinois Legislature. The Illinois Legislature could simply extend its recent income tax hike to pay down the state's pension debt. This solution has the advantages of unquestionable morality and constitutionality. It is perfectly legal and moral for governments in the United States to pay off their accumulated debts.
The State of Illinois could impose a financial transaction tax that would be collected by the exchanges in the state. Dozens of nations around the world impose such a "FTT." A one dollar tax per transaction (a fraction of the level of such assessments in place in other countries) would raise billions, have an inconsequential impact on the securities industry, and allow the State of Illinois to actually pay its accumulated debts. The FTT would actually be paid by those industries that created the financial crisis in 2008-09, driving down public pension funding ratios. The Illinois Supreme Court should take note of the fact that the imposition of a small FTT to meet Illinois' contractual obligations is manifestly a "less drastic" option than the breach of Illinois state contracts. IF THE STATE OF ILLINOIS BREAKS ITS PENSION CONTRACTS, THIS BREACH OF CONTRACT WILL HAVE BEEN A CHOICE RATHER THAN A "NECESSITY." Illinois public employees did not cause the pension crisis, they have made uninterrupted pension contributions, unlike the State of Illinois.
The State of Illinois could consider reforming its state tax system, closing corporate tax loopholes that cost the state billions, and re-amortizing the state's pension debt over its life 50-70 years. (See Ralph Martire's public pension refinancing plan.)
The Illinois Legislature could also consider lowering the rate of FUTURE accrual of pension benefits in the state by reducing the public pension "multiplier" on a PROSPECTIVE basis (for pension benefits not yet accrued.) See Professor Amy Monahan's paper: "Public Pension Reform: the Legal Landscape." She is Professor of Law at the University of Minnesota School of Law, and the foremost expert in the U.S. on public pension contractual obligations.
(Note that Eric Madiar, Illinois Senate President Cullerton's legal counsel argues that such a reform is not permissible under the Illinois Constitution's pension protection provision. However, it seems counterintuitive that any RETROACTIVE public pension reform, such as a COLA-taking, might be considered legally preferable to a PROSPECTIVE pension reform, such as a multiplier reduction.)
Let's be clear . . . taking "fully-vested," contracted, earned, and accrued public pension COLA benefits from current Illinois retirees is the MOST DRASTIC idea that has been put forth. Touch current retiree contracted benefits . . . be sued . . . arrive back at Square One in a couple of years.
Cullerton's legal aid Eric Madiar believes that Colorado's recent theft of fully-vested, accrued public pension COLA benefits is likely unconstitutional. So, why is Cullerton going down this path in Illinois?
From “Public Pension Benefits Under Siege”:
“The adoption of the contractual approach by Colorado . . . however, make(s) it more likely that pension reform efforts (the COLA provisions of SB 10-001) will be found unconstitutional.”
A PDF of the Madiar paper is available on the website of the National Conference of State Legislatures at the following link:
Support public pension contractual rights in the U.S., contribute at! Friend Save Pera Cola on Facebook!

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