May 13, 2012
“Last week, two commissioners from the Cook County Board visited with us to provide an overview of an ambitious plan to reform the county’s public pension program and ensure its sustainability.
Like so many public pension programs around the country, Cook County’s is spiraling toward catastrophe — one that could lead to huge property tax increases on one hand and to the real possibility of an eventual default on the other. Neither eventuality would be pleasant, of course.
We’re more than mildly impressed by the initiative described to us by Commissioner Bridget Gainer, the pension subcommittee chair from Chicago, and Commissioner Tim Schneider of Bartlett.
Through a variety of tough tactics, the approach they described would rein in a pension program that has gone from a 90-percent funding foundation 10 years ago to 60 percent today.
The plan would, among other things, extend the qualification for retirement by five years and significantly reduce the automatic increases in pension benefits retirees now receive every year. But, Gainer said, specific tactics are negotiable. The key is the goal, which is not: Returning the funding of the program to 80 percent in 30 years.
We’re impressed with the analysis. We’re impressed with the bite-the-bullet plan. We’re impressed with the outreach the county board is extending to labor, which ultimately must buy in. It’s the type of thing that all of government must do these days, not to be irascible, not just to look out for taxpayers, but also to sustain pensions that are vital to so many. But that’s not really the point of today’s commentary.
The point here is how this reform, in whatever refined form it eventually takes, is enacted. It’s Cook County’s public pension program. The program is underwritten by Cook County taxpayers. But the Cook County Board ultimately has no real say in the reform or what the pension program looks like. In the end, the reform needs to be packaged into legislation that then must be approved by the Illinois General Assembly and signed by the governor.
Does that make sense?
From a politics standpoint, it’s understandable. The public labor unions carry a lot of political clout in Springfield, especially in cases where Springfield isn’t paying the bill.
But from a public policy standpoint, it makes no sense at all.
And yet this is the way it works in Illinois. It’s not just pensions for Cook County employees. It’s also pensions for our municipal police department. Pensions for our local school teachers also are set in Springfield. Shouldn’t pensions be part of the benefits package that is negotiated locally just as salaries are, just as most other benefits are?
Make no mistake. The movement in Springfield toward public pension reform is real. But until Springfield also gives up some control over the local pension programs themselves, it won’t really be reform.”