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Best way to solve pensions is to walk away

Published: Wednesday, Nov. 27, 2013 5:30 a.m. CST

SPRINGFIELD – Hang on to your wallets – the Illinois General Assembly may soon be back in town.

House Speaker Michael Madigan has told his members to be back in Springfield on Dec. 3 for a special session to address the state’s pension crisis.

To quote the baseball great Yogi Berra, “It’s déjà vu all over again.”

Madigan has been a part of more than a few pension “fixes” during his more than four decades in public office.

The reality is that none of those “fixes” has solved much of anything. They have simply pushed the inevitable day of reckoning further down the road.

We saw it 19 years ago, when the Speaker, along with then-Gov. Jim Edgar, pushed a measure through the General Assembly that “fixed” the state pension system.

They called it the “Edgar Ramp.”

And here is how it worked: Since politicians back then didn’t want to pay a whole lot of money toward pensions, they created a plan that said politicians in the future would pay more toward pensions.

Of course, it didn’t work out that way.

As time went on, lawmakers ended up paying less than their predecessors had promised, while governors kept placating government worker unions with ever-more generous pension promises.

So that’s how we ended up with an unfunded pension liability of more than $100 billion and a situation that just about everyone acknowledges is a “crisis.”

So what grand “fix” should we expect to be unveiled next week?

After talking to a variety of people involved with negotiations, it sounds like the “fix” probably will be something pretty similar to what was proposed 19 years ago. Oh sure, there is talk about trimming back pension benefits. But these are changes on the margins.

More than likely, the new “plan” would involve promising that future lawmakers will show greater fiscal responsibility than those making the promises. And larger payments toward pensions will almost certainly be loaded on the backend of the plan.

At the end of the day, we have a fundamentally broken system.

To be blunt, the best solution is to walk away from the system.

It’s time to move current and future employees into a more sustainable plan.

• Scott Reeder is a veteran statehouse reporter.

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