Pension Deal: A First Step Toward Full Education Funding

Blogs, Letters & Testimonials

December 16, 2013

By Rebeca Nieves Huffman, DFER-IL State Director

Illinois has a problem: our state finances are in horrible shape and our pension payments have crowded out our ability to invest in our future. Namely, we don’t have the dollars necessary to set our students and teachers up for success.

On December 2, the Illinois General Assembly approved a comprehensive pension reform package (Senate Bill 1) that guarantees Illinois will make its full annual contribution to its pension fund. The reforms are expected to save the state $160 billion over the next 30 years. The bill will reduce the annual cost-of-living increases and push back the retirement age for those 45 and younger. With the billions saved from these reforms, Illinois will be able to fully fund its retirement system by 2044, and—hopefully—channel more funding into crucial social programs like education.

Senate Bill 1 is a necessary step toward fixing the state’s current financial issues, and will allow us to focus on closing funding gaps in our public education system. Illinois is currently dead last in the country when it comes to its state share of education spending, which is certainly not the way to grow the next generation of productive and fulfilled citizens. We need to direct dollars to where they are needed most—our classrooms.

Illinois’ budget problems did not begin overnight; The nearly $100 billion pension debt resulted primarily from sluggish investment returns during the recession, the state’s failure to make its own legally required annual pension payment, and its practice of skipping pension payments while making promises to the state’s workers our resources could not cover. As many have predicted, the answer to this dilemma is not an easy one nor will it make everyone happy. Even some of the officials who voted for the bill are looking for court intervention.

Senate Bill 1 is the first of many tough decisions ahead for our state. The changes created by the pension reform bill apply only to members of the General Assembly and other state employees, university employees and teachers outside of Chicago, meaning a separate decision process will be needed to address the pension shortfall in Chicago Public Schools.

The compromise bill is not perfect, but it is a first step to fixing the state’s most pressing financial issue. While elected officials were deadlocked over a solution to the pension crisis, the state’s financial credibility suffered and vital state services were put at risk. Solving the current pension issue will allow Illinois to finally start putting the necessary time and resources into long-term priorities, including funding our state’s education system so all of our children will have access to a high-quality education.

Comprehensive education funding covering everything from improved facilities to increased classroom resources should be the goal of every Democratic leader who cares about the future of Illinois, and the pension reform package is a necessary step toward making that goal a reality.

For the last 10 years, Rebeca has worked across the country for organizations with national scopes and local reach into many states, so she is thrilled to apply her national experience in her home turf as the Illinois State Director of Democrats for Education Reform. Read more about Rebeca here.