Pension Problems in Illinois


A friend of mine sent me this article.

Public sector pensions in Illinois are a problem. Chicago and Illinois had a very strong manufacturing economy that had to pay good wages and benefits. Unions pushed benefits and pensions. With the strong economy, companies paid high wages and benefits. Government unions pushed for higher wages and benefits. And with the strong economy politicians were glad to pay.

Now people are living much longer. When pensions and social security were first approved people did not tend to live long after retirement. Good health care means that people are living longer - a good thing - but not for the pension systems.

Illinois has done some cutbacks. The Illinois Municipal Retirement Association, my local government program, for example, was based on years of service * 4 year average pay. A few years ago Illinois changed it to the highest eight year average, which lowers the pension, but only for new workers. IMRF pays 35% of the average pay after 20 years of service and goes up 2% a year for each additional year.

Police and Fire are much more expensive. After 20 years of service they get 50% of their highest pay, and go up 2.5% a year thereafter. They also pay the surviving spouse 100 percent of the pension, where my system pays 50%.

I remember when the Firefighters got the State Legislature to raise their surviving spouse pension to 100 percent. They were very happy. The Legislators were happy to do it because the Firefighters would vote for them, and the cost was borne by the municipalities.

I told them, "What are guys thinking? Not only will you not get anything more money while you live, the woman who prepares your meals has no incentive to keep you ticking." You could see that idea roll around in their heads.

It is hard to get a handle on pensions. You basically entered into a contract between the government employee and government - they offered the employee a fixed percent of their salary in exchange for years of service. Changing that after an employee has worked ten years amounts to breach of contract. And politically difficult - all the public pensioners and their relatives would likely vote against anyone who reduces their pension.


Think about yourself and social security. When it was first started the average retiree did not live very long.  The systems appeared solvent. But now retirees are living much longer which will make it insolvent. Ditto medicare.  A package of lower benefits, higher eligibility age, or higher contributions by employers and employees are required.  None of these are popular and steps to do this would likely result in the elected official losing the next election. So it does not get done. 


The military pays 50% after 20 years of service and increases by 2.5% a year. The government changed it to 2% a year, and retention crashed. They had to go back to the old system to maintain the forces.


A difficult problem. Which is why it has not been corrected. But a thing that is not sustainable will not be sustained. We will eventually correct the problem, either with lower benefits or higher taxation, or both.