Looming Pension Reform Leads to Rush to Retire in Illinois

During the 12-month period ending June 30, nearly 4,750 rank-and-file state employees retired. That's almost as many as the prior two years combined.
by | August 13, 2012
 

Delores Thomas wanted to work two more years as a state child-support enforcement officer, helping families get the money they're owed.

But the 57-year-old West Side resident heard the loud chatter out of the Capitol about cutting pension benefits. She decided she couldn't take the uncertainty any longer. With more than 34 years in state service, Thomas said she quit on the spot June 8.

"There's a lot of talk out there. I said, 'Hmmm, I gotta go,'" she said. "I'm saying, 'I'm outta here.'"

Thomas is part of what's become a mad rush to get out of state government before Democrats and Republicans finally hash out their differences and cut a deal on pension reform. During the 12-month period ending June 30, nearly 4,750 rank-and-file state employees retired. That's almost as many as the prior two years combined.

"That's just a big number," acknowledged Timothy Blair, executive director of the State Employees' Retirement System. "A lot of it has to do with the unknowns of what's going to happen."

The state university pension system also has seen an increase in retirements. The retirement numbers among suburban and Downstate teachers have been on the rise, but less so.

Thomas, who fears she'll be unable to afford medicine for diabetes and asthma, hopes her decision to leave before pension benefits are reduced will give her a better chance to lock in place the retirement deal she has now.

The strategy may or may not work. Lawmakers are talking about reining in benefits for those who've already retired, but any move that puts the financial fate of tens of thousands of public employees in the hands of Springfield's policymakers creates enough concern to drive the retirement surge.

With Illinois looking at a $93 billion pension debt by next summer, Quinn has asked lawmakers to come back to Springfield on Friday to approve a comprehensive overhaul of four pension systems -- rank-and-file workers, elected officials, university employees, and teachers outside Chicago.

The odds of that happening are long as an election looms Nov. 6 and opponents of pension changes in organized labor provide money and volunteers on both sides of the aisle, but especially among Democrats who run the show. There's also a dispute over a Democratic proposal to gradually shift up to $800 million in suburban and Downstate teacher pension costs onto local school districts. Republicans say that amounts to a major property-tax increase outside Chicago.

There's a backup plan: have the House approve a pension bill the Senate approved in May that would scale back benefits for two pension systems -- the one for state elected officials and the one for rank-and-file workers in the system where people are fleeing fastest.

Under that proposal, lawmakers and other state employees would be required to accept cost-of-living increases below the current 3 percent compounded level if they want to keep access to their state health insurance and have salary increases totaled into their final pension earnings. Prospects for approval appear dim, however.

House Republican Leader Tom Cross, of Oswego, doesn't plan to vote for the Senate bill, arguing a pension fix should be all-encompassing plan that "includes everybody."

"I think it's a mistake," said Cross, who wants to air it out with House GOP members. "I think it's nibbling around the edges at best."

The Democratic governor already signed legislation that will make retirees kick in more for their health care, especially the tens of thousands of retirees who receive premium-free insurance. The state now will recalculate retiree insurance costs each year, and the amount retirees will pay will be tied to the size of their pensions.

State workers long have felt secure based in the belief that they had ironclad pension deals with the state. They thought pension benefits could not be reduced once they are achieved, and that it would be even tougher once they are retired. The legal argument is based on language in the 1970 Illinois Constitution.

But policymakers in Illinois and across the nation are beginning to rethink what is legal, what is possible and how to get around what workers still think are surefire pension guarantees.

"We cannot have a situation where we are spending more money on pensions than we spend on education of our children and our students," Quinn said. "This is really a policy issue that we have to deal with. It's no fun doing it, but it's absolutely necessary."

The economy of the last decade has injected chaos into retirement plans, long-term investments and stock markets. The decades of not putting enough money into the state pension systems are catching up. And the cost of giving retirees compounded yearly increases only exacerbates the problems in a state where officials failed to put the long-term public interest ahead of the short-term political gain of delaying tough decisions.

In addition to state government worker retirements, the State Universities Retirement System has seen its numbers rise. About 4,647 university workers retired during the budget year that ended June 30 -- the highest number in at least five years and nearly 1,300 more than the year before.

Retirement numbers through the Teachers Retirement System, which covers public school teachers in the suburbs and Downstate, have been on the rise over the last three budget years. But between April and July -- part of the teacher retirement season -- the number has hovered slightly above and below 3,000 the past three calendar years.

Illinois has seen retirement surges in the past, but that's usually when state officials seek to lure workers off the public payroll with sweet packages of early retirement incentives. The last came a decade ago under then-Gov. George Ryan, a Republican now in prison for corruption, when 11,372 left the system for rank-and-file workers alone.

What is clear to Blair is that the latest rush for the exits represented "our biggest year ever" once those outlier years driven by early retirement perks are factored out of the equation.

The president of the retiree organization for theAmerican Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which represents the most state workers, hears from pensioners wondering how they will get by on less insurance and now maybe a smaller cost-of-living increase.

"I've been quite aggravated with our government," said Virginia Yates, who leads AFSCME Council 31's retirees.

A widow from Sandoval in southern Illinois, Yates said she receives about $24,000 a year in state pension and gets no Social Security after working about three decades at Murray Developmental Center.

Yates thought her retirement would be great, but said she faces a squeeze when it comes time to put on a new roof, replace the car, buy a lawn mower and pay for medicine.

"I know some people have less income than I do," she said. "You can't believe the people who are calling me and concerned and crying."

Chicago's Thomas thought state officials were only going after the "Cadillac pensions" the Tribune and WGN-TV highlighted during the last year, but said she became worried when they started looking at pensions like hers. Thomas said she clears about $1,300 a month off a $2,200 check after federal taxes and other deductions.

"These folks," she said. "I don't trust them."

(c)2012 the Chicago Tribune

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