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'Stop looking for scapegoats,' teachers representative says
By Ken Swanson | President, Illinois Education Association

Ken Swanson


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Published: 4/28/2010 12:22 PM

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Public employee pensions are controversial. They shouldn't be.

And if the Illinois General Assembly had acted responsibly, they wouldn't be.

Public pensions are like Social Security in that both taxpayers and employees share the cost. In fact, the taxpayers' cost for a teacher hired today is less than the cost of providing Social Security.

Surprised? Here are more surprising facts about the biggest state pension system, the Teachers' Retirement System (TRS):

• By law, TRS annuitants receive no Social Security benefit for their years in the classroom.

• There is nothing extravagant about TRS pensions. The average TRS annuitant retires after 29 years of teaching with an average annual benefit of $41,532.

• Annuitants pay nearly 10 percent of their salary toward their retirement.

• According to the legislature's pension commission, the average cost of an Illinois teachers' pension is significantly less than the cost of a pension for a teacher in any surrounding state.

So, why is there a pension problem?

In the last 30 years, the Illinois General Assembly has repeatedly failed to pay its required TRS contribution, opting instead to use the retirement systems as an ATM machine with overdraft privileges.

Pension money was used to balance the state budget, allowing lawmakers to fund state services, despite rising costs, without raising taxes. This was politically convenient but fiscally irresponsible.

Sadly, lawmakers have sought to resolve the problem they created by attacking public pensions. In March, the General Assembly passed legislation that will cut benefits for future employees. The new pension law, among other things, gives Illinois the nation's highest teacher retirement age (67), putting our state at a disadvantage in the competition to attract and retain top quality teachers for our public schools. Such actions compound the mistakes of the past.

So, what should the legislature do about public pensions?

• Act responsibly. Make the payments as scheduled, just as the teachers have.

• Don't squander public resources on a futile legal battle. Every reputable legal expert believes any proposal for cutting current employees' benefits would be ruled unconstitutional.

• Most importantly, pass comprehensive tax reform legislation such as HB 174, which will allow Illinois to adequately fund education, pay for necessary services and begin retiring the huge debt the legislature and past governors have saddled us with.

The attack on public pensions is misdirected and counterproductive to the goal of getting Illinois back on track.

Let's keep our eyes on the future and stop looking for scapegoats.