MATTOON -- Veteran statehouse journalist Charles Wheeler III read aloud an account Wednesday evening of state officials being concerned about Illinois underfunding its pension obligations.
That concern is a commonly voiced today in Springfield, but many in Wheeler's audience at Eastern Illinois University were audibly surprised to learn that the account he read was from 1917.
"It's not something new. It's been a problem forever," Wheeler said.
Wheeler, who was the Chicago Sun-Times Springfield bureau chief for 19 years, discussed pensions issues as part of a speaker series held by the EIU Annuitants Association. He directed the University of Illinois Springfield's Public Affairs Reporting Program for the past 26 years, is a regular on public radio's “State Week in Review” public radio, and writes a column for Illinois Issues online magazine.
Underfunded pension obligations have been a problem in Illinois through the administrations of nine Republican and seven Democratic governors and through control of the legislature shifting between the two parties, Wheeler said.
The guest speaker indicated that pensions were a major topic of discussion at the constitutional convention in 1970 that resulted in a new Illinois Construction.
Wheeler said university employees, police officers, firefighters and other workers were afraid that the state or municipalities with new home rule authority would cut earned pension benefits to avoid meeting these financial obligations. He said these groups successfully lobbied for the inclusion of a pension protection clause in the new constitution.
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"They (the legislature) knew what they were doing. The voters knew what they were doing, it was clearly explained," Wheeler said of the pension protection clause. He added that this clause has since maintained that, "Benefits that are earned cannot be taken away."
However, Wheeler said subsequent court rulings have held that while the state and local governments must pay pension obligations under employee contracts, they do not have to set aside enough money to meet all of their potential pension obligations. He noted that workers also can voluntarily give up pension benefits.
Wheeler said proposals to cut pension benefits for retired and current workers will likely not move forward due to the protection clause. He said proponents would have a difficult time getting the votes in the House and Senate needed to hold another constitutional convention, and a majority of voters opposed convention proposals in 1988 and 2008.
Legislators would be better off to look into ways of meeting pension obligations instead of trying to avoid them, Wheeler said. There might be workable options for restructuring the benefit payment schedule, he said.
In addition, Wheeler said Gov. J.B. Pritzker's November ballot proposal for a graduated income tax in Illinois offers may bring in more revenue for the state, including for meeting pension obligations.
Wheeler ended on a personal note by saying one of his biggest concerns in state government is the decline in civility and cooperation between the two political parties that he has seen in recent years.
"The bottom line is we are all in this together," Wheeler said.