Chicago Tribune Editorial Board
May 15, 2012
“Two more weeks. That’s how long your legislators are scheduled to be in Springfield for the remainder of their thus far do-little spring session.
As of this writing lawmakers have taken one important step to secure the future of perpetually insolvent and indebted Illinois: They scaled back nearly cost-free health care coverage for retirees. Between now and May 31, they will take three more important steps — reforming unaffordable state pension and Medicaid programs, and adopting an annual budget that will balance expenses against revenues.
Or your legislators will fail to take those three steps and, by their inaction, fail you and your state.
So if you want your state senator and representative to know that you demand action on these three fronts, now’s the time for you to phone, email or hire a skywriter. Be assured that, while you’re deciding whether to speak up, the guardians of the financially doomed status quo are lobbying furiously: They would be happiest if lawmakers didn’t modify their generous pension plans, didn’t dictate any employment-threatening reduction in Medicaid spending, and didn’t force the fiscal 2013 budget to balance. The perils caused by decades of lawmakers’ overspending, overborrowing and overpromising aren’t just threatening your state government, which now has nearly $200 billion in debts and unfunded obligations. Many of the 7,000 local governments statewide also are sick with debts and busted budgets.
In preparation for educating your lawmakers, check three excellent websites that document the deep holes of pension indebtedness that local officials, too, have dug for taxpayers:
• County Treasurer Maria Pappas has been relentless about requiring Cook County’s 553 municipalities, school districts and other taxing bodies to disclose to citizens the full extent of taxpayers’ debts. Her newest, most ambitious online database exposes how dramatically these governments’ debts have outpaced their rising tax collections. Check out Pappas’ numbers at chicagotribune.com/pappasdebt. She told us Monday that credit rating agencies also are inspecting her data; that could lead to downgrades of the sort state government again will face if it doesn’t address its debts. The site’s most useful feature allows you to type in your 14-digit property index number and see how well, or how poorly, all the local governments you support with your property taxes have performed. Countywide, these governments have run up $140 billion (yes, billion) in debts — including more than $33 billion in unfunded pension obligations. And that’s not the totality of local officials’ mischief. On Monday, Pappas dispatched Freedom of Information Act requests to 63 noncompliant local governments, giving them five business days to supply her with their debt data. She says she’ll pursue $5,000 civil penalties from taxing bodies that continue to refuse. (Evergreen Park, Barrington Hills, New Trier Township, Proviso Township High School District 209, Pleasantdale Park District of Burr Ridge — why are you flouting the debt disclosure ordinance that Pappas steered through the Cook County Board? How will you explain diverting taxpayers’ dollars to pay penalties for your noncompliance?) Another question: Why isn’t every county treasurer in Illinois — make that every county treasurer nationwide — gathering this same, simple data so their own taxpayers can track pension and other debts? Collar county treasurers in particular, start your engines.
• Every resident of Cook County also should visit chicagotribune.com/gainerdebt [OpenPensions.Org], a rich site constructed by Commissioner Bridget Gainer, head of the county’s Pension Subcommittee. This is an ideal, conversational primer for taxpayers but also for students: It explains not only how the county’s unfunded obligation exploded by nearly 700 percent between 2001 and 2010 (to more than $5 billion), but how various changes today would affect the system’s health tomorrow. The option that some pols other than Gainer would choose — “Do Nothing” — plainly has the system on track to pay out its last assets in 26 years.
• Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s City Hall has its own site, less extensive than the county’s but gifted with two features we admire. One allows city employees and citizens to suggest pension reforms; mayoral spokesman Kathleen Strand tells us the administration has been struck by the imagination and thoughtfulness of those volunteered proposals. Another feature allows you to watch the city’s pension debt grow by the second. If nothing else stokes your sense of urgency, this frightening exercise will. You’ll find the site at chicagotribune.com/emanueldebt.
Explore this wealth of information, then ponder two weeks that are crucial to the future of Illinois and its people.
Lawmakers, most of you are up for re-election in 25 short weeks. This spring, you need to deliver pension reform, Medicaid reform, and a balanced state budget.
Voters, make them.”