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April 27, 2011
Illinois: A Laboratory of Insolvency
States have been referred to as a "laboratory in democracy", but Illinois must be seen as a laboratory in insolvency.
Illinois is a symptom of a larger problem that is facing our nation, and one that will grow in significance: insolvency. The inability to squarely face the financial facts and handle our affairs with basic prudence will not go away any time soon.
The top 100 pensions here in Illinois will cost taxpayers nearly 1 billion dollars in future benefits. Think about that: 100 people collectively will get 1 billion in payments during their retirements.
Clearly, the Illinois pension and retirement system is one of the worst in the nation. With a total liability of at least $130 Billion (and climbing) perhaps only about half is funded.
The best estimates of our public pension shortfall are at least $55 billion and maybe as high as $70 billion. Illinois is dead last in funding its pension obligations.
Here is the math: In a state of 14 million residents, this amounts to a minimum of $4000 for every man, woman and child. Yes, this debt is one to be paid out over a number of years, but that too is a problem: it has to be paid and it will continue to be paid and paid and paid, absorbing an increasing share of limited resources.
The combination of absolute debt and an anemic percentage of funding make the situation intolerable and difficult to correct.
There is plenty of blame to go around, but ultimately public unions need to understand that they cannot operate in a world where financial reality does not intrude into the picture. Union leadership seems to be an oxymoron. Officers of public unions should have been using their considerable influence in Springfield to work on salvaging the pension programs through a series of significant restructurings, funding programs, greater contributions, and making sure tax dollars were being used and allocated wisely. It was in their direct and best interest to make sure that the state was solvent and the pensions were properly funded. That was and remains their job- to look after their membership. Disregarding this basic accounting and financing of your own members retirement plan is clear evidence of their lack of seriousness and total ineptitude.
Next in line are public employees themselves. Did they really just think that things would go along without interruption? Are they really so naïve as to think that because the benefits are written into law that they will, no matter what, get paid? This is a shame as a great majority of these people are decent and hard working, but they have been paying into a grossly mismanaged system. Now what?
The politicians in Springfield are equally to blame here. Taking campaign contributions -- often times amounting to very substantial sums -- and then turning your back on the rest of the citizens of the state has consequences. At a minimum they decided to not pay attention, figuring that the problem was 20 or 30 years down the road. But reality has a way of showing up whether you want it to or not. Back in March 2010, over the strenuous objections of AFSCME, House Speaker Michael Madigan bulldozed a pension reform bill through Springfield that greatly restructured the pension rules for state employees. Well and good, but the horses were long ago out of that fiscal barn and into the next county already, Mike.
Well now what? For here it looks like the end of that road is right up ahead and here is where it ends: Bankruptcy. State insolvency in our day, and in our time.
The point of all of this is as follows: what is happening here in Illinois is already starting to make itself manifest on a national level as well. Just give it a few years to properly fester and metastasize.
Finally the citizens in many states need to wake up and pay attention to what is happening to the dollar, to our budgets, to our growing debt, and to entitlement spending. We are all to blame. By continually electing people who are beholden to corrupt institutions and corrupt and discredited political philosophies, we get what we deserve.
Unfortunately, in this case, many of us are getting now what others deserve.