Lawmakers in Illinois recently managed to override Gov. Bruce Rauner’s veto, end a government shutdown and pass their first actual budget in two years. So, things are looking up there, and for other states with financial problems, right?
Actually, not so much. The $5 billion in additional annual revenue brought about by the budget’s tax hikes will allow Illinois to pay off the $15 billion bill it has racked up from its recent budgetary games. But it won’t fix the much larger problem of uncontrolled spending on public employee pensions.
The state’s Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability estimated last year that the state’s pension plans were just 37.6% funded. Put another way, they were underfunded to the tune of $130 billion. That’s more than $10,000 for every person in the state. And some private estimates put the shortfall at closer to $250 billion.
This sorry situation gives Illinois virtually no chance of avoiding some form of insolvency. As a state, it cannot declare bankruptcy as some cities have done. A default would take the state (and the nation) into uncharted territory, with little certainty about how judges would rule. Another option would be for Congress to do for Illinois — or for all states — what it recently did for Puerto Rico: allow it to offload entities such as pension plans and let them go through bankruptcy.
In one sense, Illinois is in a unique situation. Its Supreme Court has rejected a good-faith, bipartisan effort at pension reform and made any future fixes all but impossible. Other states’ supreme courts have allowed more flexibility in reducing the rate at which workers accrue benefits for future work, changing retirement dates and adjusting cost-of-living increases.
Unions representing public workers have managed to persuade state agencies to reward them with gold-plated pension plans, and in some cases, retiree health care. These plans have been agreed to with little or no public input, or understanding by bureaucrats and lawmakers who know they will not around when the bills come due.
The most generous states are Alaska, California, Colorado and Nevada, where the average career worker pulls in more than $60,000 annually and many take in six figures. Those in the worst fiscal shape are Illinois, Kentucky, Connecticut, Alaska and Kansas.
What is most inexplicable about all of this is that progressive groups and progressive voters continue to support public sector unions even as make off with the family jewels.
The vast sums states are forced to throw into pension systems erode their ability to provide good public education, safe streets and livable communities — all goals deeply cherished by progressives.
Roughly a quarter of the entire Illinois budget in recent years has gone to funding pensions. And yet,all this money has done is slow the rate of decline of its financial outlook.
It is time for Americans to recognize the troubling fiscal plight in many states. Perhaps when Illinois or other states like it finally hit a fiscal wall, voters will wake up to the calamity that awaits them.
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