A $41.5 billion capital program. A plastic bag tax. Electric vehicle fees. A higher gas tax.
All topics floated at one time or another this legislative session.
One that escaped much talk in Springfield: The public pension crisis.
We are not surprised.
The gap between what public government employers are owed in benefits and the amount of money set aside now totals $133 billion.
Moody’s, the credit rating agency, on Monday said pension risk scores are a big reason they determined Illinois is one of the two states least prepared to deal with a downturn in the American economy. (The other is New Jersey, which has its own list of staggering fiduciary problems.)
With the current legislative session wrapping May 31, pensions remain the biggest elephant in the room. Or maybe a pack of elephants. Year after year, the elephants return and not much is done.
Partly it's because any change is politically risky, given the powder keg that is the state's five pension systems. There's also the problem of language being added to the state Constitution of 1970 that says benefits can't be “diminished or impaired.” A change would require a battle of unions, lobbyists and lawmakers. It would be messy.
Pension reform also was missing from serious discussion during the gubernatorial race, although Gov. J.B. Pritzker in February created two groups charged with exploring solutions. Options range from refinancing to state to local governments issuing bonds for covering pension obligations to consolidating some of the state's hundreds of pension funds.
Pritzker scored a victory, through no action of his own, by the state getting a surprise $4 billion extra in state income tax haul. Another $800 million in revenue is projected in the new budget that starts July 1. That combination allowed the Democrat to put the money toward the pension obligations, a wise move.
This session, the focus has been on Pritzker's promise to implement a graduated income-tax structure. His administration estimates it would generate about $3 billion annually by taxing based on how much a person makes versus at a flat rate. Voters would have to approve the change.
Pritzker would likely have garnered more support from Republicans had pension pay-down with the money been a priority. Instead, he initially wanted to extend the payment schedule by seven years to the pension systems, cutting short millions of dollars. Only after the windfall came was the plan abandoned.
Pritzker has said he's committed to address the pension issue. But if voters should have a say in whether the graduated-tax should be adopted, we too should have a say on pension reform.
Pensions, high property taxes and some of the highest workers’ compensation costs in the America continue to hobble our state. Moody's is right: when the next recession hits, we're nowhere near prepared.
The elephants are still in the room.