Pension crisis bankrupting state, hurting the most vulnerable, Thillens says
With Illinois entering its 10th straight month without a budget and with statewide elections coming up in November, voters, legislators and candidates alike are clamoring for action -- including Mel Thillens, Republican candidate for the state senate's District 28.
The chief culprit in the Illinois budget crisis is the state employee’s pension program, Thillens and others believe.
“The problem with pensions is the fact that they are unfunded," Thillens recently told North Cook News. “We’re up over $120 million in unfunded pension liability, and it is bankrupting our state."
Illinois ranks dead last in the nation in pension liability, and under the current system there are roughly 213,000 state retirees. More than half of them can expect to receive lifetime pension benefits of more than $1 million, and approximately 40,000 of them (18 percent) can expect to receive $2 million or more in benefits over the course of their lives. Illinois is one of just 12 states that do not tax retirement income, and one of only seven states that constitutionally protect its pensions, according to the Civic Federation.
Taxpayers United stated that 8,500 members of the Illinois Teachers Retirement System alone receive pensions in excess of $100,000 per year. These employees pay an estimated 4.1 percent of their lifetime earnings into the system; the remaining 95.9 percent of pension funding comes from Illinois taxpayers. Right now, a quarter of every state dollar in the general fund must go to pensions, and that rate will continue for the next 30 years.
Workers in the private sector, on the other hand, with average Social Security benefits, can expect to realize approximately $400,000 in lifetime benefits.
There are five state government-worker pension funds that cover teachers, university employees, state workers, judges and politicians, according to the Illinois Policy Institute (IPI); and the dollar amounts for the top pensioners in these programs are staggering. In the State Universities Retirement System, for example, the top ten beneficiaries can currently expect to receive an average of $8.36 million in lifetime benefits with an age at retirement of 66.8. The SURS’s top pensioner, Leslie Heffez, can expect to receive nearly $18 million in total benefits.
Legislators in Illinois have a pretty good deal themselves. Members may "retire" at age 55 with eight years of service and at age 62 with four years of service. Although these positions are generally considered to be "part-time" public service jobs, taxpayers doled an estimated $15.8 million in lawmaker pension funds last year. That’s an average of nearly $72,000 for each legislator in the general assembly, according to OpenTheBooks.com.
IPI estimates for the year placed the figure at $99,000 per seat. The state comptroller’s transparency database indicates that the base salary for lawmakers was $66,277 in 2014.
“The problem is that this pension crisis is hurting the most vulnerable in our society," Thillens said. “Some of the most truly needy -- from kids that want to go to college and can’t afford it to people with developmental disabilities who need state support to live on -- these folks need government funding to live on and are having trouble getting the things they really need. Those are the people that are falling through the cracks, and those are the people that least deserve that."
Thillens is one of many candidates who have pledged not to accept any pension benefits resulting from future service in the state legislature.
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Park Ridge, IL