It’s not yet clear what pension reform will look like for Illinois, but more public education will help lead to a solution that’s fair for everybody, elected officials stressed at a pension town hall in Chicago Thursday night.
North Side lawmakers, Ald. Ameya Pawar (47th), State Rep. Ann Williams (D-Chicago) and Cook County Commissioners Bridget Gainer and John Fritchey, hosted the public meeting in order to focus the contentious and often confusing pension dialogue.
“If the conversation continues to be greedy public servants versus people busting pensions, I think we’re never going to have a reasonable conversation,” Pawar said to the crowd of more than 50 at St. Benedict Prep High School.
The town hall comes just days after the lame duck session ended without passing legislation statewide pension reform. Like the state, which has $96 billion in unfunded pension obligations, Cook County and the city of Chicago also face large pension shortfalls.
Carol Keating-Johnson, a Chicago sanitation engineer, said to the lawmakers that she’s concerned about her and other public workers’ futures.
“Is that possible, that there will be nothing for us in five years?” she asked.
The aim of the town hall, Gainer said, is for people to be armed with enough information to hold their elected officials at the city, county and state levels accountable.
“Is it possible?” she said. “Of course, it’s possible.”
But, she said, “That is something that I can’t foresee, because I think the public is not going to accept it.”
And at some point there will be a solution, Fritchey added.
“There are going to be sacrifices made by retirees, by current employees, future employees, government operations, and that’s the price we are going to have to pay to be responsible,” he said.
Gainer, who started the Cook County-focused website openpensions.org, said that although the county hasn’t missed a payment to its pension, it will be bankrupt by 2038 if no changes are made.
The biggest mover of change is the cost of living adjustment, or COLA. Increasing the retirement age by five years and finding other ways to pay for retiree medical care are some other options being discussed, she said.
Regardless of what components make it into a bill, “The one certainty out of this is whatever gets passed by the legislature will be in court. It’s going to be challenged,” Fritchey said.
“If and when the legislature passes something, don’t expect an immediate effective date,” he added.
He predicts pension legislation will make it to the Illinois Supreme Court.
“Depending what the Illinois Supreme Court does, we could be very well back to square one.”
Pawar echoed that pension reform won’t be a quick fix.
“I think everyone understands this is a very complicated issue, and there’s a lot of nuance involved,” Pawar said. “You can’t bring a hatchet to this to fix a problem that’s likely going to require a scalpel for most of it.”
Williams, who drove from Springfield to attend the meeting, said she doesn’t know what else can be cut from the state budget to help offset pension costs.
“We can’t cut our way out,” she said.
Jay Rehak, president of the Chicago Teachers’ Pension Fund, said one solution is preventing new charter schools from opening. That’s because whenever a charter school opens, fewer workers are adding to the teacher’s pension pot, he said.
And at least one member of the audience said she’d be willing to pay more in taxes to ensure vital programs and services aren’t cut.
“I want what taxes buy,” said Barbara Ellis, a professor at Harper College.
“I want the roads. I want mental health care. Raise my taxes.”