The Fifty-Year Plan: A mid-term report. June, 2018.

Bob Lyons (right)

By Robert Lyons, retired teacher and former annuitant representative on the board of the Illinois Teacher Retirement System (TRS).

When is a solution not a solution? When it does not solve the problem. In 1994 the five state pensions plans (TRS, SERS, SURS, JRS, GARS) had a total unfunded liability of $15 billion. That was a problem and the state of Illinois acted. Led by Governor Edgar the General Assembly voted unanimously to follow a plan that had as its goal to achieve a 90 percent funding for the five state retirement systems by fiscal year 2045. By the time the plan went into effect in 1995 the unfunded liability had grown to $20 billion. A year ago at the end of fiscal year 2017 after twenty-two years of the plan the unfunded liability was $130 billion.

 Wait, that cannot be right? But it is.

In 1995, newly retired, I was glad that there was finally a plan to deal with the unfunded liability in the Illinois pensions, but I did not question the details. Well, just last week I heard a state representative, one who taken tough votes in support of retired teachers, say that we should be pleased that the General Assembly had followed the plan in voting to fund the pensions for FY 2019. I think for that reason alone we need to look at what following the plan has meant for the state pension systems.

First, there was a fifteen-year ramp to gradually increase the state’s contributions, which was designed to make it easier to sell the fifty-year plan to the legislators by allowing them to vote to “solve” the problem of funding the pensions while still enabling them to continue to vote for popular projects. Second the plan could be amended when needed to allow the legislators to depart from the plan when they did not have the money, which they did in fiscal years 2006 and 2007, “saving” $2.3 billion which was subtracted from the pensions payments with the approval of the IEA, the IFT, and SEIU to spend the money on more popular causes and gaining the approval of a four extension of the ERO. It is certainly possible that the union leaders did not realize that shorting the pension funds by a little more than $2 billion would in the long run cost over $6 billion in growing the unfunded liability. By the time the ramp had come to an end in 2010 the unfunded liability had grown to almost $76 billion.

With the end of the so-called ramp the legislature realized that with the significant growth of the unfunded liability that they needed to be committed to ever-growing payments.

The real failure of the fifty-year plan was that it allowed for the unfunded liability to continue growing and also that it was heavily back-loaded. The original funding scheme did not call for the pension payments to grow large enough to begin to really reduce the growth of the unfunded liability until 2034 and it called for the total funding in the last five years of the plan to total $75 billion.

 While it could be argued that any plan was better than no plan, but they could have made a better plan. It is equivalent to paying down your credit card. Smaller payments in the beginning mean larger payments in the long run.Any actuary would have told them that the best plan would have called for dividing the amount owed into even payments with a goal of eventually reaching a hundred percent funded. But required larger payments was not what they wanted to pay. The sooner a pension fund reaches full funding the better. Pension funds invest every dollar they can with the hope that their investments will grow and reduce the need for external funding. Illinois pension funds, on the other hand, are currently required to take money out of profitable investments in order to pay annuitants their pensions. “They had to eat their seed corn or starve.”

 The last five years has seen the funding grow for the five state pensions funds while at the same time the funded ratio has barely moved. In 2013 the five funds were 39.3% funded, 2014: 39.3%, 2015: 40.9%, 2016: 39.2% and 2017: 39.9%. In the last five year each of the pension systems made money, their investments grew, but the unfunded liability climbed as well as the state’s payments were less than what was needed and, as already stated, it was $130 billion at the end of FY2017.

 The new budget for FY2019 calls for the state to contribute to the TRS pension fund $4.466 billion, a 9.05% increase over this year’s contribution of $4.095 billion. More than 70% of the payment to TRS is to partially pay what they owe because of the underfunding. You can expect to hear state legislators say with some pride that this payment meets the requirement of the fifty- year plan, but it must be noted that the payment, as large as it is, still falls far short of moving TRS toward full funding by $2.9 billion.

In 2017 TRS reported that its “investment returned 12.6% net of fees and the Systems 30 year-return was 8.1%. Total investment income was $5.5 billion.” We will not learn how TRS has done for FY2018, which ends June 30 until likely late August when the last numbers for real estate and private equity funds are finally reported. We do know that the $49.468 billion that we had at the end of June last year had grown to $51.541 billion at the end of March of this year. While still dependent on how their investments do in the last couple of weeks of the fiscal year, it certainly looks this will be another positive year for TRS, but it will still likely end the year only about 41% funded.

The Teachers’ Retirement System ended 2017 at 40.2% funded, the University Retirement System was at 44.4% funded, the State Employees’ Retirement System was 35.5%, the Judges Retirement System was 35.6%, and the General Assembly Retirement System was 14.9%. Yes, the retirement system for the legislators, which has over 400 annuitants, is just only a market crash away from insolvency, and many of the most recently elected senators and representatives have opted out of the system.

 That General Revenue portion of the Illinois state budget for FY2019 calls for spending $38.5 billion, and of that, the total for the five pensions system is $8.5 billion. In addition the state will pay $1.6 billion in debt service for Governor Quinn borrowing to pay pensions some seven years ago. In almost every state in the nation three to four percent of their budget for pensions is considered normal. In Illinois we are paying 22%, or 26% if we add the cost of borrowing. And recall that is still not an adequate payment to stop, let alone reverse, our underfunding from growing.

That is the dilemma that the state of Illinois and we the citizens of the state are paying for following a plan that was not in reality a solution for the problem that they were trying to solve. Not only has the problem grown, it will continue to grow.

 It is late, but the only real solution is a variation of the one suggested by Ralph Martire of the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability. He calls for reamortizing the debt with equal payments with a goal to reach 80% funding and selling bonds to make the payments. Paying the bonds simply shifts the responsibility to the next generation. I would prefer passing a referendum for a progressive income tax and using the increased tax revenue to try to pay down the unfunded liability directly through equal annual payments. Considering the role the new progressive state income would play in solving what the state owes the pensions, I think we should accept paying state taxes on larger pensions. I do not think it is fair to ask others to pay more unless we are willing to help contribute ourselves to a solution that works.


Illinois State Comptroller Susana Mendoza’s office responds to my concerns about retired teacher health payments.

Abdon Pallasch. Director of Communications. Illinois Comptroller’s office.


We can agree on the cause of the delayed payments to the Teacher Health Insurance Security Fund and many other deserving funds around the state: Governor Rauner’s manufactured budget crisis. The most prominent voice exposing Governor Rauner’s attacks on worthy institutions around the state belongs to Comptroller Susana Mendoza.

The state of Illinois continues to deal with a fiscal crisis that resulted from the lack of a complete budget for two years, during which the estimated backlog of bills had more than tripled by the end of FY 2017 and reached an all-time high of $16.7 billion later in the year. The passage of the fiscal year 2018 budget did not mean an immediate reversal of the damage that was done from the budget impasse.

On a daily basis, the Office of the Comptroller continues to triage outstanding vouchers and transfers given limited resources in the state treasury. Throughout fiscal year 2018, despite facing substantial backlogs, we continue to make critical payments for pension contributions to the Teachers’ Retirement System and grant payments to K-12 schools, including funds through the Evidence-Based Funding formula. The office also paid the second quarter mandated categorical grants in April – several months earlier than the previous fiscal year. In addition to these payments, our office has been able to make $36.5 million in transfers to the Teacher Health Insurance Security Fund.

Benefitting from additional receipts coming into the state treasury in the spring, and after seeing some stabilization in the state’s finances, the Office of the Comptroller provided $18.3 million to the Teacher Health Insurance Security Fund in March from the General Revenue Fund, and two additional monthly transfers, each at $9.1 million, were processed in April and May. It is our understanding that other deposits into the fund are made on an ongoing basis and that services to members have not been disrupted.

The Office is working with limited state resources to address more than $2.1 billion in fund transfers that are still pending, while facing an estimated $7.3 billion bill backlog today. The decision to release these payments, and future payments, is solely dependent on the availability of state funds. It should be noted that the Office has even older transfer requests from fiscal year 2016 that we are working to address. The Office will continue to inform the Teachers’ Retirement System and Central Management Services on the ongoing condition of state finances and further provide the status of pending transfers.

All required payments owed to the Teacher Health Insurance Security Fund will be paid. We are hopeful that the Legislature will insist, once again, that having a complete 12-month budget for fiscal year 2019 is essential for the state of Illinois. Once the Office reviews a final fiscal year 2019 budget, we will be better able to develop a path to make the payments owed by the state.

Abdon Pallasch

Dir. of Communications

Office of the Comptroller

Kentucky teacher pensions. Can you hear us yet?

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Here in Illinois we have been fighting the battle to protect promised public employee pensions for many years.

In 2015 we won a major victory when the state Supreme Court upheld the pension protection language in the state Constitution.

Those of us who organized, blogged and went to Springfield often found us deserted by our own state union leadership as they looked to cut a deal that would cut us out.

It was really good this week to see teachers in Kentucky by the thousands rallying at the state capital in defense of their pensions.

Fellow pension blogger Glen Brown reports on his blog today, starting with a CNN report:

“More than 20 Kentucky counties had schools close Friday after the state Legislature approved changes to their pension on [March 30].  Educators, who are furious over the pension issue, called out of work sick or requested substitutes in protest.

“The bill, which overhauls the state’s pension, passed mostly on party lines and heads to Gov. Matt Bevin, who supports reforming the system. State leaders say it’s critical to fix the pension crisis, which ranks as one of the worst in the US.

“Kentucky teachers have opposed changes to their pension, which was inSenate Bill 1 that proposed reducing benefits. But in a surprise move, elements of Senate Bill 1 were tucked into another bill, Senate Bill 151, which had been about sewage services, reported several CNN affiliates in Kentucky. And the new, nearly 300-page Senate Bill 151 passed both the state House and Senate on Thursday to the chagrin of teachers and retirees who crammed into the Capitol. ‘Just vote no!’ they chanted Thursday. ‘Vote them out!’

“The Kentucky Education Association, which represents teachers and other education professionals, slammed the maneuver as a ‘classic legislative bait and switch…’

“A summary of the bill has the following, according to CNN affiliate WKYT…

“Kentucky Republicans tweeted a summary of the bill. Republican lawmakers attempted to allay concerns, saying that the bill is a compromise to save the state’s pension… The bill passed the House in a 49-46 vote and the Senate by 22-15, according to CNN affiliate WLKY.There are 10 veto days following the passage of the bill for Bevin to take action on the legislation. Bevin, a Republican praised the lawmakers who supported the bill for not ‘kicking the pension problem down the road…’

“Inspired by the West Virginia strike, in which teachers went on strike and won concessions, teachers are similarly organizing and publicly pressuring their state lawmakers in states including Oklahoma and Arizona.” 

For the full report by CNN’s Amir Vera, Marlena Baldacci and Dave Alsup, click here. 

Glen adds his own commentary:

In Kentucky, the legal basis for protection of public pension rights under state laws is contractual, like most other states. Kentucky’s pension accruals are protected, but past only and not the future. In Illinois, accruals are protected past and future; the legal basis that safeguards pension accruals is the Constitution of the State of Illinois. Two other states—New York and Alaska—are protected past and future. Four other states’ pension accruals—Arizona, Michigan, Louisiana and Hawaii—are protected past only.

The rolling national teacher revolt has addressed many school funding issues. In West Virginia it was about teacher pay. In Oklahoma it is about class size, classroom support and general education funding. In Kentucky it is about pensions.

For years, those of us fighting to defend promised pensions in Illinois warned that the pension attack was coming to your state. Some listened. Some didn’t.

I can recall on more than one occasion when several of us, including a retired activist buddy who had left Illinois for retirement in Florida, was told dismissively by national organizers that the pension fight was too local and provincial to Illinois to be included in their national education conference. There was no room for even one panel.

Now Kentucky teachers are shouting.

Can you hear us yet?



Judge rules against Chicago park district pension theft.


Judge Neil Cohen

As a result of a pension deal between a number of unions representing park district workers. the Illinois Democratic Part legislative leadership and the Chicago Park District,  members would pay an additional 3 percent of members’ pay and receive lesser benefits.

Writing about it in 2013, Greg Hinz in Crain’s:

In exchange, workers who now contribute 9 percent of pay toward their retirement would gradually move up to 12 percent by 2019. The figure would remain there until the 90 percent-funded target was hit, eventually dropping to 10.5 percent.

 Also, for district employees hired prior to 2011, the minimum retirement age would move from 50 to 58. But for newer workers, who are covered under a different standard, the age for normal retirement would drop from 67 to 65.

In one other big change, annual cost-of-living hikes would move from 3 percent simple (uncompounded) to the lesser of one-half inflation or 3 percent. That change would take effect immediately and apply to current retirees.

CPD’s spokeswoman was unable to comment today, saying officials were not available. But according to Mr. Madigan’s office, the bill has been agreed to by both management and labor and CPD would like it to get final legislative approval before lawmakers head home for the year tomorrow.

No way, ruled Circuit Court Judge Neil Cohen.

The judge ruled last week that Park District workers cannot have their benefits legislated or bargained away.

And then n March 1, Judge Cohen overturned the pension deal on constitutional grounds similar to those cited by the Illinois Supreme Court in 2015.

On March 21, Cohen ruled that since 2013 the higher workers contributions be returned with interest, and orders that the park district property-tax levy return to its prior, lower level.

What the original agreement between the Park District, some unions and the Michael Madigan’s legislature did was to have the Park District pension members pay for the failure of the District to make its pension payments over many years, calling it “sharing the pain.”

Yet when the Illinois Supreme Court upheld the pension protection clause of the state constitution it spelled doom for all of these kinds of agreements.

The legislature can’t constitutionally steal our pensions.

And no union can bargain away our pension rights.


What I have as a pension is what I wish for all retirees.


Perhaps it is crazy to talk this way in an era in which both political parties stand for austerity.

I believe that what public employees receive as retirement security after a life-time of work is what all seniors should have.

It is the 6th year of my retirement from teaching. I am still spending a good amount of my time writing about public employee pensions in Illinois and helping to organize the defense of our contractual, constitutional and moral guarantee of it.

When the Illinois legislature was considering pension theft in 2013, most public polls showed that most people believed that the promise to pay our pensions is a promise that should be kept.

In spite of misinformed reporting like that of Paris Schutz on Chicago Tonight, my pension hasn’t made me or my family rich.

I am still shaking my head at his claim that Illinois educators are “taking home millions in pensions.”

Combined with what we have managed to save and plan for, my pension provides for a retirement that – short of a critical medical event or some other unexpected financial crisis –  is what every working person should have after a life-time of work.

It was not that long ago that unionized workers in the private sector had that kind of retirement security too.

As a result of decades of bi-partisan efforts to reduce social programs and destroy private sector unions, pensions in the public sector have been replaced with employee funded defined contribution plans, if anything at all beyond Social Security.

Most workers can’t afford to pay into them.

And now Social Security is in the cross hairs.

Take the time to read Glen Brown’s post this week on this topic.

As a public school teacher and a parent of public school children, I have always believed what John Dewey taught me:

Over a century ago Dewey wrote in School and Society “What the best and wisest parent wants for his child, that must we want for all the children of the community. Anything less is unlovely, and left unchecked, destroys our democracy.”

It is also what I believe about about those who work.

What I have earned for these years of my retirement is what I want for all those who have reached the years where they no longer should have to work or no longer can work – or frankly, never could find work.

Anything less is unlovely, and left unchecked, destroys our democracy.





Retired teachers are killing your puppies! And eating them!

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Paris Schutz reports for public television’s Chicago Tonight on WTTW.

When reporting on public teacher pensions you can count on Chicago Tonight using Illinois Policy Institute talking points, having IPI guests on their panels and Paris Schutz reprinting IPI press releases and then putting his name in the byline.

What a lazy reporter.

“Retired Illinois educators taking home millions in pensions,”posts WTTW on their web site in a report by Paris Schutz.

Never mind that the average teacher pension in Illinois is so low that it qualifies for a low-income deduction in our Cook County property tax.

To justify his premise that teachers are taking home millions of dollars, Schutz lists a couple of over-paid superintendents that get over-the-top pensions.

One of whom, Lawrence A. Wyllie, is an indicted felon and former superintendent of Lincoln-Way High School District 210.

I posted about him.

The average teacher pension in Illinois is $50,000 a year after 35 years of employment.

Even if every over-paid administrator lost their pension, it would have no impact on the $130 billion dollar unfunded pension liability.

The unfunded liability – the pension debt – is a result of the failure of the state of Illinois to pay what they owe into the pension funds.

Seventy years of underpayment.

The banks and Wall Street get the bulk of what the state now pays out as interest on the debt.

Educators, Paris Schutz?

We get peanuts.

Chicago Fox news. Pension facts as phony as the actors who pretend to be the just folks on the street.

Fox 32’s General Manager Dennis Welsh.

Chicago veteran media reporter Robert Feder has the goods on Chicago Fox 32 General Manager Dennis Welsh.

Welsh went on the air the other day with an editorial that featured ordinary folks complaining about public pensions and the need to raise revenue to pay them.

Except the ordinary folks were all Fox employees.

Who are these supposed ordinary citizens expressing their outrage over high taxes and government workers’ pensions? For a few seconds in small print at the bottom of the screen it says: “Illinois Taxpayer enactments performed by Fox 32 employees.” In other words, they’re all Fox 32 staffers being used as props for the boss.

That’s not all. Fox 32 is paying to promote Welsh’s rant in Facebook ads, according to Illinois Working Together, a coalition of unions including chairs of the Illinois AFL-CIO and Chicago Federation of Labor.

“@Fox32News is PAYING TO PROMOTE this video that blames all IL taxes on pensions + advocates constitution changes,” Illinois Working Together tweeted this week. “It’s one thing for a newscast to air its political views/advocate policy change. It’s a very different thing to *pay to promote* those views. Apparently the “views expressed” may or may not represent @Fox32News. So . . . who paid for the Facebook ads?”

Welsh did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

Fox 32 sources said the editorial was produced outside of the news department and did not involve news personnel. “We’re not happy about it,” one insider said..

It is more than the people in the ad that are phony. So is everything Welsh said, including “the” and “it.”

Channel 32 staffers, pretending to be random folks, recite their scripts complaining that their taxes are paying for “unsustainable public pension costs” instead of paying for roads and “educating our kids.”

Welsh knows better. He knows that seventy years of unpaid pension dollars were diverted to pay for roads and schools because Illinois revenue, taxes on the wealthy, were kept unsustainably low.

Welsh calls for a constitutional amendment to erase the pension protection clause from the Illinois Constitution knowing that this will do nothing to erase the $200 billion dollar (according to Bloomberg) pension liability.



Pensions. It is true that I get impatient, but 70 years is a long time to wait for a problem to get fixed.


Tune in to this week’s Hitting Left with the Klonsky Brothers. Our guests will be Jay Rehak, a teacher at Whitney Young High School and president of the board of trustees of the Chicago Teachers Pension Fund. Joining Jay and my brother will be John Dillon and Glen Brown, both pension bloggers and what some in the leadership of the Illinois Teachers Union refer to as the Perfection Caucus. That’s because they have never been willing to concede basic contractual and constitutional principals.

You can still listen to last Friday’s HL on podcast. Our guest was gubernatorial candidate and current State Senator Daniel Biss.

Senator Biss was on the wrong side of the pension issue for years until the Illinois Supreme Court ruled his solution unconstitutional.

To his credit, he now says that he was wrong.

Senator Biss may have felt a level of frustration coming from me in our conversation. It was not my intention to be rude. You don’t invite someone to be a guest in your home or on a radio show and treat them rudely.

Plus, on a range of important issues, Senator Biss does the right thing.

Just the other day a judge blocked enforcement of a good bill that Senator Biss introduced and got passed in the Illinois legislature. Biss’ law required hospital and medical clinic professionals to tell pregnant women about all their available options, including abortion.

But back to my frustration.

First of all, Senator Biss did not complain. In fact, we received a friendly note of thanks and an offer to return to talk more.

And my frustration reaches far beyond Senator Biss. It goes back seventy years to legislative, bi-partisan pension thievery.

It goes back seven years to the creation of a Tier II for teachers hired after January 1, 2011. If Senator Biss’ bill was pension theft, the creation of Tier II was grand larceny of felonious proportions.

My frustration extends to the recent legislative creation of a Tier III which establishes a private investment option, placing a firm foot in the door for pension privatization. Plus it moves pension costs to already cash-strapped local school districts.

Senator Biss said that his mistake in pushing so-called pension reform was buying into the Culture of Springfield, of failing to address the core problem of adequate revenue and a fair system of taxation that places the responsibility for meeting the state’s obligations on those who can most afford it.

In my opinion, most of the leading candidates for the Democratic nomination for governor are firmly rooted in the Culture of Springfield.

The current governor doesn’t only buy into it, his turnaround agenda embodies it.

I will vote for somebody in November who is not Bruce Rauner.

But listen this Friday, 105.5fm at 11AM and streaming on and hear about about a Movement that defeated a major piece of legislative pension theft.

A Movement was the only thing that could defeat it.

And as for my impatience, I will try and do better.


A pension story like no other. Like every other. The Memphis sanitation workers + 49 years.


Memphis, 2017. Photo credit: Fred Klonsky

April, 2018 will mark the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King in Memphis, Tennessee.

This past March, Anne and I drove to Memphis to pay honor to the man and to remind ourselves of the struggle of Memphis sanitation workers. It was that struggle that brought King to Memphis.

Today’s NY Times publishes a story about public pensions that is like no other.

In its essence, it is a story about public employee pensions that is like every other one.

It is about how labor is rewarded and not rewarded. It is about how there is justice and injustice for working people when they finish their working lives.

Civil Rights U.S.A. pic: 30th March 1968. Memphis, Tennessee. Guardsmen with fixed bayonets in Beale Street, Memphis as black marchers stage a protest march.
Memphis sanitation workers strike, 1968.

It is about how even after nearly 50 years, for the 14 surviving striking Memphis sanitation workers, there is still little in the way of real justice.

The sanitation workers of the 1960s have long faced a gap between their retirement benefits and those of other city workers. The difference hinged on a choice after Memphis recognized a union for the sanitation workers: They elected to participate in Social Security instead of Memphis’s pension plan. Only later did it become clear that the Social Security payments would be insufficient to provide meaningful retirements, setting off years of talks and searches for legal loopholes.

Elmore Nickleberry was a striking Memphis sanitation worker when Dr. King was murdered. He is a Memphis sanitation worker today at the age of 85.

He likes his job but is concerned about retirement and living on what he will get from the tiny Social Security check he will receive.

Memphis’ mayor has come up with a grant of $50,000 for each of the 14 strike survivors.

A one-time only retirement payment.

“They’ve been saying they didn’t have no money, so I didn’t think it was ever going to happen,” Mr. Nickleberry said in an interview this month. “I was shocked.”

Of course, Mr. Nickleberry is happy to receive it.

After 63 years of work he is still not sure when he can retire.

He said the expected payment and a stronger retirement offered to those who are not yet retired is a measure of vindication, decades after he first protested.

“That’s what I wanted,” he said softly, “always wanted.”