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McCaleb: Will pension reform turn into anti-reform?

Published: Sunday, Sept. 8, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT

Is it possible that the conference committee working behind closed doors to “fix” Illinois’ failing public pension systems actually could make matters worse?

In Illinois, anything’s possible, I suppose. Even this.

First, let’s review:

Illinois’ five statewide pension systems are underfunded by $100 billion. That amount increases by millions each day that lawmakers don’t pass meaningful reform.

There is no cap on current retirees’ pensions. Thousands of retirees across Illinois receive six-figure annual pensions for no longer working. Hundreds receive pensions in the hundreds of thousands of dollars each year. More retirees with excessive pensions are added to the rolls each year.

Automatic, 3 percent compounded cost-of-living increases that public pensioners receive each year means that those annual pensions continue to grow astronomically every year.

Because Gov. Pat Quinn and the General Assembly repeatedly have failed to reach a solution, they punted responsibility for pension reform to a conference committee made up of six Democratic and four Republican lawmakers.

So how can this bipartisan group of legislators that’s been meeting behind closed doors since June possibly make matters worse?

According to a briefing sent recently to Republican General Assembly members about the committee’s recent discussions, a bill being crafted would reduce public employees’ contributions to their own pensions and potentially increase the annual COLA.

Here are some of the details, according to the briefing:

• There’s no increase in retirement age in the proposal.

• There’s no cap on individual pension payouts, meaning annual pensions of hundreds of thousands of dollars would continue.

• Public employees would actually contribute a percentage point less – not more – to their pensions. For example, a teacher that currently pays 9.4 percent of his or her salary toward a pension would only pay 8.4 percent.

• The COLA would not go away. It would be half of the Consumer Price Index and contain a floor and a ceiling. But the ceiling could be much as 6 percent. If inflation reaches double digits at some point in the future, the pension crisis only gets worse.

Now these details aren’t final. They could change before a bill is crafted and filed. And there are some positive details in the briefing, such as delaying the COLA after a public employee retires based on their current age. For example, a current public employee over age 45 wouldn’t receive the COLA until the second year after retirement; an employee 40 to 45 wouldn’t receive it until year three, etc.

But the negatives outweigh the positives and, according to the briefing, these are the latest from the committee that’s under pressure to come forward with a bill soon.

I hope it’s not, but if this is what gets filed, I don’t see it passing.

That would set pension reform back another year or longer.

And Illinois’ $100 billion pension problem will grow by the day.

• • •

Super pickup: Congratulations to Scott and Missy Voorhees of Crystal Lake, who won a 1963 Dodge pickup truck that was used as the Kent family farm truck in the latest Superman movie, “Man of Steel.”

The Volo Auto Museum donated the truck as part of the McHenry Outdoor Theater’s Drive to Stay Alive campaign, according to a news release from the museum. The McHenry drive-in is trying to raise money to buy a digital projector so it can keep its doors open after the movie industry switches over to digital-only distribution.

The Volo Auto Museum and Radio Station 102.3 XLC partnered with the drive-in for a summerlong fundraising campaign. On Aug. 24, the theater played “Man of Steel” as part of Super Hero Night. Winning numbers for the ’63 Dodge were drawn at the event, but no one claimed the prize.

New winning numbers were posted daily on the drive-in’s Facebook page until someone claimed it, and the Voorhees were the first to call.

Scott Voorhees and his wife have three children: Cassie, 15, Nate, 12, and Matt, 11. The truck will be Cassie’s first vehicle, Mr. Voorhees said, according to the news release.

If you’re a fan of the theater, you can help them out by voting in Honda’s Project Drive-In. Visit http://projectdrivein.com/#vote_111 and vote to save McHenry’s outdoor theater.

• • •

Support local firefighters: The Cary Fire Protection District is celebrating 100 years of service to the communities it serves. As part of the celebration, CFPD will host a semi-formal Ballroom Dance this coming Saturday (Sept. 14) at the Crystal Lake Holiday Inn. The dance is scheduled from 7 p.m. to midnight.

A live orchestra will provide music. Hors d’oeuvres will be served and a cash bar will be open. Tickets are $20 each and can be bought at Station 1, 400 Cary-Algonquin Road, Cary, between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. daily or from any CFPD firefighter. Tickets also will be available at the door.

For information, contact CFPD at 847-639-2121.

• Dan McCaleb of Crystal Lake is group editor of Shaw Media’s suburban publications, which includes the Northwest Herald. He can be reached at 815-526-4603, or by email at dmccaleb@shawmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at @Dan _McCaleb

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