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Pension reform comes too little, too late for this taxpayer

Published: Friday, Dec. 13, 2013 10:32 a.m. CDT

Thank you, state lawmakers, for enacting pension reform, or something like it.

I think.

I’m not convinced that the bill you finally passed is really reform. There is the good chance that the courts will find it unconstitutional. But even if they don’t, I doubt that the cost savings that legislative leaders have touted will come close to fruition. That’s because I trust your word about as far as I can throw the cell blocks of the federal prisons where Illinois lawmakers spend their golden retirement years.

You get a C-minus for effort. You would have gotten an A had you not waited umpteen years to fix the problem, if it can be fixed – I’ll get to that later.

But your efforts aside, this taxpayer and his family still are planning to bug out of Illinois some day soon. My 1-year-old daughter is going to start school in a state where the government doesn’t see us as ATMs that can walk and talk. It’s been my family’s plan for a while, and sorry to say, this pension reform is a day late and $100 billion short.

After 42 years, I’m breaking up with Illinois. We need to see other people.

It’s not you, it’s me. OK, that’s a lie. It’s totally you.

Lawmakers last week passed a bill that supporters said will solve the state’s $100 billion pension shortfall, mostly by reining in the 3 percent compounded cost-of-living increases for four of the five state-run pension systems. The untouched system is the one for retired judges, to try and smooth over that whole constitutional thing.

The geniuses who drafted the 1970 Illinois Constitution included a provision that public-sector pension benefits “shall not be diminished or impaired.” I guess they thought the mandate would force future lawmakers to fully fund the system, which makes about as much sense as a couple in a troubled marriage deciding to have a child to force them to stay together.

Of course, lawmakers scoffed at the provision. They’ve shorted their end of the bargain for decades so they could spend the money on other things. At the same time, lawmakers repeatedly approved plusher retirement benefits for public employees so that it’s not uncommon for retirees after 10 to 15 years to be making more than they were when they were working.

So one of three things is going to happen with this pension reform bill. The courts will find it unconstitutional and toss it, the courts will uphold it but the savings won’t materialize, or the savings will materialize but lawmakers will find ways around it and continue to spend us into oblivion.

In all three scenarios, taxpayers lose.

In all fairness, the pension mess is far from the sole reason the Cravers plan to join the exodus of people fleeing the state.

For starters, there’s that 67 percent income tax increase that lawmakers blatantly lied about when they called it “temporary.”

There’s the never-ending parade of taxing bodies that show up outside my door each year with their palms outstretched. Homeowners in a county dominated by the Party of Low Taxes and Small Government have one of the highest property-tax burdens in the nation and enough local governments to fill a stadium.

There’s our state’s endemic corruption that’s great for late-night comedians, but lousy for the rest of us. I’m sick of lying on my vacations that I’m from Wisconsin – people start asking me about the Green Bay Packers, and I can’t bull my way through it.

As for cherries on the sundae, Illinois has the severe weather of Texas but not its economy, the winters of Alaska but not its scenery, the humidity of Florida but not its beaches, the taxes of California but not its climate, and the corruption of Louisiana but not its cuisine.

We pay too high a price for the privilege of looking at corn. But nothing motivates like the tick-tick-tick of the pension time bomb.

More than one Springfield watcher has used the adjective “ailing” to describe the state-run pension systems, as if they are medical patients.

However, as everyone who has lost a loved one knows, sometimes there’s no cure. Doctors tell the patient to make themself comfortable and get their houses in order.

Will that be the case in Illinois? Time will tell, but if the state’s Day of Reckoning does come, I don’t plan to be here and have a front-row seat.

As I wrote in a February story about how to survive a mass shooting, the only guaranteed way to avoid becoming a casualty of a disaster is to be somewhere else when it strikes.

• Kevin P. Craver is senior reporter for the Northwest Herald. He has won more than 70 state and national journalism awards during his 13 years with the Northwest Herald. He can be reached at 815-526-4618 or at kcraver@shawmedia.com.

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