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COLUMN: Escaping a fiscal abyss

George Will, Washington Post
Posted 4/9/22

CHICAGO - Prophecy is optional folly, but predicting a convulsive crisis for the nation’s worst-governed state merely involves understanding its present parlous condition. From 16 stories above the …

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COLUMN: Escaping a fiscal abyss

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CHICAGO - Prophecy is optional folly, but predicting a convulsive crisis for the nation’s worst-governed state merely involves understanding its present parlous condition. From 16 stories above the Chicago River, the reformers at the invaluable Illinois Policy Institute have stared into their state’s fiscal abyss and devised solutions.

This libertarian think tank’s ideas might, however, be politically impossible, given the blue-state governance model that has made the mess: the Democratic Party and government employee unions, bound together with hoops of steel.

Illinois is gagging on government, with more units of local government than any other state, and nearly 1,000 more -- not counting school districts -- than its neighbors Indiana, Iowa and Kentucky combined. Illinois spends five times more on school districts’ general administrative costs than Florida, which has 900,000 more students.

The nationwide, but mostly Democratic, incontinence regarding pension promises for government employees has driven state and local governments’ unfunded commitments to almost $5 trillion. Illinois’ debt, relative to the size of its economy, is the nation’s worst.

The unfunded liabilities of state-managed pension systems are $313 billion, which is around 30% of Illinois’ gross domestic product.

Even sustained brisk economic growth would not solve the pension crisis under current law. And current law makes such growth impossible.

In 2015, a bipartisan pension reform was scuttled by the state Supreme Court’s decision that the Illinois Constitution protects government employees’ pensions from any diminishment -- not merely of already accrued benefits but of all potential future benefits for employees already in the system.

The Illinois Policy Institute’s proposed constitutional amendment -- which would require 60% majorities in both houses of the legislature, then ratification by statewide referendum -- would allow future pension benefits to be reduced to sustainable levels, while protecting current benefits. The amendment would make possible correcting the following conditions:

State and local employees hired before 2011, whose contributions to their own pensions average only 4% to 6% of expected lifetime payouts, will typically receive payouts that exceed -- sometimes by a lot -- $2 million. The compounding of 3% annual cost-of-living increases, regardless of the inflation rate, doubles pensions after 25 years. Americans’ full Social Security benefits cannot be collected until recipients are 67; Illinois state employees hired before 2011 can retire in their 50s.

The average pension funding ratio for the 50 states is alarmingly low, but almost double that of Illinois, which has only 42.4 cents saved for every dollar promised. Illinois’ credit rating has been downgraded 21 times since 2009, and now is near that of junk bonds. Between fiscal 2000 and 2022, spending on pensions grew 584%, 23 times the percent increase in pre-K-12 spending.
Unlike for cities (e.g., Detroit in 2013), there is no clear legal provision for state bankruptcies. So, imagine the reaction of U.S. senators from the vast majority of better-governed states when Illinois comes seeking a federal bailout.

Illinois’ northern edge is north of Cape Cod, its southern tip is south of Richmond, and from the Wisconsin border to the Kentucky border, there is support for splitting Illinois into two states -- Cook County (Chicago), and the other 101 counties. This will not happen, but it might educate the six members of the 50-member Chicago City Council who are members of the Democratic Socialist Party and are learning Margaret Thatcher’s axiom that sooner or later socialists run out of other people’s money.

Chicago’s eight pension funds have more debt than 45 states.

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George Will’s email address is georgewill@washpost.com.

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