Illinois Is the Canary in the Pension Coal Mine, Says Adam Schuster.

Position:Q&A - Interview
 
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Illinois is running out of time to fix its public sector pension problem. A new report from Moody's Investors Service identified the Prairie State as one of the two most likely to suffer during an economic downturn. Illinois towns and cities are already paring back government services to pay for generous benefits packages for retirees, and Chicago's pension debt alone is larger than that of 41 states. That arrangement can't last forever.

"The worst-case scenario is there's another national recession, which would cause our pension funds to lose a bunch of their assets again," says Adam Schuster of the Illinois Policy Institute. "As the assets shrink, the pension funds go into a financial death spiral. We might end up with some kind of Puerto Rico-style pseudo-bankruptcy or federal bailout. Everybody in the nation is now on the hook for Illinois politicians' irresponsible decisions."

The best-case scenario would involve repealing an automatic 3 percent raise that pensioners receive each year of their retirement and requiring workers to pay more into their own plans. Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker would prefer to scrap Illinois' flat income tax and replace it with a progressive tax scheme, which could cause even more people to flee the state. In May, Schuster spoke to Reason's Mike Riggs about the pension conundrum.

Q: If somebody had been paying attention 30 years ago, could they have anticipated this pension problem?

A: Thirty years ago would be just about enough time to stop some of the mistakes. We changed the state constitution in 1970 to add a pension protection provision, which essentially says that as of the day of hire, an employee's benefit formula cannot be changed in any way. So it doesn't only protect benefits that somebody has already earned. It protects the future growth rate of those benefits for life and gives the state legislature no flexibility to change them.

Q: What happened next?

A: In 1990, Illinois implemented a guaranteed 3 percent compounding cost of living adjustment. So a person's pension goes up by 3 percent every year regardless of how much inflation there is in the economy. It basically doubles the size of somebody's pension over the course of 25 years.

We also had a series of governors, both Republican and Democratic, who habitually shorted the system by putting in less than the required contribution. The reason they did that is that the required contributions were unaffordable and never would have been...

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