Steve Eberhardt, Esq
February 21, 2011
My retired neighbor a few doors down collects about $1,100 a month from social security. He works part-time but can’t exceed the annual earning limits or his benefits will be reduced. Another neighbor knows a retired state officer a few blocks over who collects about ten times that amount as a pension and he’s not even one of those persons who stack multiple government pensions.
It’s not surprising to read the numerous letters to the editor demanding government pension reform. Interestingly, pension reform was passed last year by the state legislature, but did nothing about the current pension system. Reform only applies to employees who had not yet been hired. So, the taxpayer won’t see changes for 20 or 30 years.
What was the Legislature’s justification for continuing the lucrative pension system with no provisions to cap benefits while still working or collecting multiple pensions? Legislators were the first to rally behind a thing called the “pension protection clause” of the Illinois Constitution. That’s a clause that Legislators argue protects them as well as members of the four other State pension systems and gives them the right to collect those benefits and sometimes multiple pensions that they voted for themselves over the last decades.
Isn’t there something grossly wrong with a system where the recipients of these lucrative benefits are the very persons who voted to give themselves those benefits? Of course there is.
How lucrative are the benefits? For 2011, the State reports there are 182 active members in the Illinois General Assembly Retirement System with their total expected payroll to be $14.7 million. The State (that is, money from the taxpayers) will be paying $12.1 million into the GARS fund. That’s a contribution of just over 82% of the Legislator’s salaries. Put another way, the taxpayers are paying these part-time Legislators about $68,000 a year as well as paying another $55,000 for each of them into their State pension fund!
So, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that a neighbor who retired from State government receives a pension ten times greater than my neighbor on social security.
It’s not surprising that the Legislators want to hide behind the “pension protection clause.” Yet, transcripts from the 1970 Constitutional Convention make clear that the clause was meant to clarify and strengthen the right of state and municipal “employees” to receive their expected pension benefits after years of contributions. One of the co-sponsors of the clause explained it in terms of police pensions. The other co-sponsor explained that if “you mandate the public employees … to put in 5% or 8%” that employee should get the pension they were promised years down the road.
From this laudable idea introduced at the 1970 Constitutional Convention, we have reached the point where the General Assembly Retirement System receives a contribution of over 82% of a Legislator’s salary. The Governor as well as numerous other State “officers” are a part of this system.
In my hometown of Tinley Park, the last fiscal report notes that the Village contributed just under 21% of a police officer’s salary to the police pension fund as required by the State Legislature. I would bet that our local officers would appreciate if the General Assembly would mandate contributions similar to their own. I would also bet that anyone looking to retire on social security would like to have someone paying 82% contributions on their behalf.
While the thrust of the 1970 Constitution was to protect “employees” pensions, Legislators are not “employees” but rather are state “officers”. In fact, elected state and municipal officials as well as a variety of other persons employed by government are government “officers” and not government “employees.”
So when State “officers” who voted themselves lucrative and sometimes multiple pension benefits want to talk about the Illinois Constitution, instead of hiding behind the “pension protection clause” that was meant to protect “employees” they should be considering the provision in the Illinois Constitution’s Bill of Rights that mandates a remedy for every wrong. Thus, the voters need to continue pressing their Legislators about accomplishing true pension reform that protects “employees” while correcting the self-made greedy mistakes and wrongs of the “officers.”
We would like to give Bill Zettler at Champion News lots of credit for studying and sourcing Illinois state pension abuses. His research is at the core of this post online. Visit his work at: http://www.championnews.net/article.php?sid=2696