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By: Dick Ingram
December 9, 2012

Last October, during one of the many public meetings I have spoken at on behalf of Teachers’ Retirement System throughout Illinois, I was confronted by an angry teacher.

During the meeting, I had described in blunt terms the serious financial challenges facing TRS and the difficult time state officials were having in finding a solution that would secure the system’s future for all educators; those who are retired and those still teaching.

This man was angry. He deserved to be. He felt cheated by a system that had promised him security when he retired. And quite frankly he has been cheated.

I found myself face to face with him after the meeting. By this time his anger had ebbed, and he was reflective. “This isn’t really about me, is it?” he said. “It’s about my daughter.”

It turned out his daughter is in college and wants to follow in her father’s footsteps and teach in Illinois. But right now TRS cannot promise her a pension in 30 or 40 years when she finishes her career.

“Can we fix it?” he asked. Yes, I explained, we can. But any solution will be painful and involve sacrifice. He thought a moment more and posed a question I have not been able to get out of my head — a question we all have to answer.

“Why wouldn’t we do that?”

Over the past 20 months, I have written to and spoken to thousands of Illinoisans about the problems TRS faces in keeping the pension promises made to our members.

Describing the potential insolvency of TRS, and not being able to keep our members’ retirement promises, has generated many difficult — and even angry — conversations. The truth is often hard to accept. But everyone in Illinois deserves to hear the truth, however inconvenient. The challenges TRS faces are steep. But they are not beyond solution.

Say what you will about Gov. Pat Quinn’s latest effort to spark the proper attitude toward pension reform. Beyond his Squeezy the Pension Python video campaign, there is an important kernel of truth in the central message.

All of these difficult conversations about pensions are far more about securing the future than balancing the present or understanding the past.

For the past eight months, TRS has emphasized that state leaders must act now to prevent insolvency in the future. TRS has the same fiduciary obligation to the 25-year-old teacher as to the 85-year-old retiree. Fixing the problem for the young teacher fixes it for everyone.

Why wouldn’t we do that?

Those five words capture the attitude we need to solve the pension problem in Illinois. We are at our best when we think of the future instead of the present, especially when the present is challenging and difficult. When we sacrifice for the next generation, we do great things for today. Who among us would not strive, in lean times and good times, to make the future better for our children and grandchildren?

That is how we have to approach the pension challenge in Illinois. That is how we must think about the choices before us to put TRS and the other Illinois public pension systems on sound footing. It is not about us, it is about those who come after us. They might not even know or appreciate the sacrifice made for them, but what does that matter?

Right now we have the opportunity to fix an old problem that has lingered in Illinois for decades — if we focus on the future.

Why wouldn’t we do that?

Dick Ingram is executive director of Teachers’ Retirement System of Illinois.

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