Since Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan prefers to see the cost of the pension benefits as the cause of our state’s pension problem, it came as no surprise this past spring that he proposed a solution that called for reducing the cost of the COLA for active teachers and other current public employees. What did come as a surprise is that the proposed legislation also included the possibility of retirees’ COLA benefits being diminished. Actually for me the word “surprise” was an understatement. I was shocked! Legislators of all stripes – Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals – had repeatedly said that their efforts to reduce the size of the unfunded pension liability for TRS and the other systems would never ever even consider touching the benefits of those already retired. They told us we had not only already earned what benefits we were receiving, but that those benefits were guaranteed to us by the Illinois State Constitution. Having sworn as a state legislator to “protect and uphold the provisions of the Constitution of the State of Illinois; I not only believed them, but I went so far as to tell others that our pension benefits could never be “diminished or impaired.”So what has changed?
The “pension-problem solvers” have made the decision to follow the advice of that notorious career-thief, Willie Sutton. As legend has it, when asked why he robbed banks, Sutton replied, “Because that’s where the money is!” The state’s legislative leaders and our governor realized that if they wanted to save money (and to do it now rather than later) that it wasn’t enough to reduce the benefits of just those who are currently working, that they needed to reduce the cost of the benefits of those of us that are already retired. They went to where the money is. One is reminded of the old adage “No one’s life, liberty, or property is safe while the legislature is in session”. Governor Quinn and the legislative leaders have, fortunately for their cause, found lawyers who have been willing to tell them that what they want to do is constitutional. The lawyers’ argument is to present both active workers and retirees as well with a forced choice between two equally unconstitutional alternatives and that the simple act of choosing makes the subsequent result acceptable and legal. Keep the existing COLA, but give up access to state provided health care. Keep the access to health care, but receive a significantly inferior COLA. If you have hard a time following their logic, just understand their plan could possibly take more than $30 billion from our pensions over the next thirty years.
The exact components of Senate Bill 1673 or any ultimate pension reform bill remain in flux, because the legislators themselves disagree on which proposals need to be enacted in order to close the system’s unfunded liability and to secure the long-term financial sustainability of TRS. Check the TRS website for the exact details of the bill: http://trs.illinois.gov/Before voting in the November election, you need to know if the candidates from your district favor or oppose diminishing your pension benefits, including your health care. Through websites, emails, and newsletters we will be providing information about the positions of the candidates on our issues. And then you need to let the candidates know where you stand. Use letters, emails, phone and visits. Remember all that’s involved is your pension and your health care.
Bob LyonsMember, TRS Board of Trustees