HEADLINES : Illinois
Illinois faces its moment of pension reform truth
Sit for a few minutes in the waiting area outside the governor's office on the 16th floor of the Thompson Center and the decaying financial condition of the state of Illinois is illustrated in clear, dismal fashion. From the disreputable acoustical tiles to the stained, ragged, blue carpeting repaired with strips of grimy duct tape, the whole thing gives off a vibe of threadbare neglect. The tubular, white, plastic sofas and scratched laminate tables would sit on a curb with the garbage all day and nobody would touch them. The only decoration is eight state flags stuck to the wall with pushpins. Some door moldings are held on with masking tape.
"Now would not be a good time to get carried away redecorating," says Gov. Pat Quinn, in his inner office, where the furnishings are a little more presentable but, to be honest, the carpet still buckles into inch-tall watch-your-step crests and waves.
No, now is a good time to pull back hard on the throttle of the gravy train transporting state retirees. The state faces a choice: Either continue to hack away at vital services trying to fulfill skyrocketing pension obligations - pension costs are 17 percent of state expenditures this year - or cut future benefits.
The devil is in the details, of course, but the basic plan, for those just joining us: Retirement age gets pushed up to 67, cost-of-living adjustments are reduced, and retirees will be expected to pay something toward their health care - right now, 90 percent pay nothing.
The alternative: The state goes broke.
"If we don't change the system, then folks coming up now, especially children, we won't have the money for their schools, or education, or public safety," Quinn says.
Complicating a complicated situation, the Illinois constitution forbids revoking pension benefits, but health care isn't included, supposedly, so the governor hopes to skirt the constitution by offering retirees a Hobson's choice - accept the new plan with the cuts or keep the old system but lose your health care.