This OpEd by Gretchen Hamel, executive director of Public Notice, as seen in The Northwest Herald.
Imagine for a moment you and your spouse or closest family member are sitting down to outline the household budget. You’re trying to balance the outlays — the rising cost of gasoline and groceries, the mortgage and car payments, and savings for kids’ college — with the revenues that you’re earning. Just when the numbers have balanced, your partner drops a bombshell: a year ago he or she received a credit card with a zero percent introductory interest rate and they’ve been dining (and shopping and entertaining) out on it ever since. The bill has now come due.
That is what’s happening in the federal government, as well as in state and local governments all over the United States. Lawmakers are struggling to balance the annual discretionary or general revenue budgets, cutting everything from education to law enforcement and maybe even raising taxes, to do so. Meanwhile, out there hangs another budgetary albatross: the unfunded liabilities these governments owe current and future retirees. At the federal level these liabilities are primarily Social Security and Medicare. At the state and local levels, it’s pension and health care costs for government workers.
While the federal issues of Social Security and Medicare have been a national media issue for decades, local and state pension issues are just now getting the attention they deserve. It’s about time: state workers and taxpayers alike deserve a fact-based conversation about this crisis, and the spending problems that produced it, and promise to exacerbate it if steps toward reform are not taken.
The Government Accountability Office recommends public pension systems maintain a funding-to-liability ratio of 80 percent. According to a recent report from Pew Center for the States state pension funds were about 78 percent funded in 2010 — down considerably from 84 percent in 2008.
Some states are far worse off than this average (Pew says 31 states are below the 80 percent threshold). Illinois has the most dire situation. Pew estimates the Illinois pension system is only 51 percent funded with unfunded liabilities totaling about $86 billion, more than double the $35 billion in unfunded liabilities the state estimated just nine years ago. When retiree health care liabilities are added, total unfunded liabilities will reach $140 billion by the end of the current fiscal year.
These problems are the result of years of overspending (in general) and neglect (ignoring the burgeoning pension problems by shifting funds around to mask the dire situation). Jeremy Gold, a pension expert and New York-based consulting actuary recently told the Chicago Tribune, “Illinois is a poster child for pension abuses … One of my colleagues calls this child abuse because our children must pay for our fiscal irresponsibility.”
He’s right and without reform the pensions of about 175,000 retirees who currently depend on Illinois’ pension and retirement health care system and another 276,000 current state employees who will eventually depend on this cracking system will be at risk.
Illinois must reform its pension and retiree health care systems — now. The risks of doing nothing, or too little, are extremely high: funding for the system will crowd out spending on other important budget items like law enforcement and education; or seniors who rely on their state pensions will not receive payments; or interest and tax rates on Illinois state debt will skyrocket, killing the economy and job creation in the state.
Illinois, as well as all other states in our country, cannot renege on its promises to its retirees. It also cannot tax its way out of this problem. The numbers are stark, and the situation will not get any better unless lawmakers take action. For the benefit of current and future retirees, and for the benefit of Illinois taxpayers in general, it’s time lawmakers stop hiding from this problem, and work to fix it.
Gretchen Hamel is the executive director of Public Notice, an independent, nonpartisan, non-profit dedicated to providing facts and insight on the economy and how government policy affects Americans’ financial well-being.
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