Illinoisans who thought shouldering income-tax hikes in 2011 and 2017, and maybe even voting out Bruce Rauner as governor, would resolve state government’s pension mess need to think again.
But let’s start with the good news: The State of Illinois’ pension burden decreased by $9 billion in fiscal 2018, compared to the previous year.
Now, the bad news: That improvement is largely attributable to favorable returns on market investments, not the revenue impact of those tax increases or expense control.
And more bad news: Illinois’ pension burden is still sky-high at $241 billion — worst in the nation when measured against state revenues and gross domestic product.
And still more bad news: Moody’s Investors Service, which continually studies these matters, anticipates that all states’ pension balances will jump back up this fiscal year — an average of 20% nationally — due to lower investment returns and interest rates.
According to Moody’s analyst Pisei Chea, North Carolina had the lowest pension burden, just 1.7% of that state’s gross domestic product and 31.4% of state “own-source” revenue. At the other (and undesired) end of the spectrum sits Illinois, where the pension burden is 27.8% of state GDP and 505.1% of revenue. Illinois stands alone. The next-worst state, Kentucky, has pension liabilities of “only” 309% of its revenue.
Illinois got into this mess years ago by promising its government employees pension benefits that are too generous and clearly unaffordable. And kept doing it.
Lawmakers and governors have tagged taxpayers with a larger bill — granted, a politically risky move — but they are loath to make the ultimate and obvious difficult choice. And that is to admit it can’t afford to keep its promises and go about restructuring the pension program and benefits.
Illinois Policy, a Chicago-based public policy organization with a conservative bent, has been crunching these scary numbers and sounding the alarm for years. “State lawmakers should recognize that any increases to Illinois’ already-painful total tax burden would only continue to depress the lagging state economy,” the group stated. “That includes Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s proposed progressive income tax overhaul.”
The organization advocates a constitutional amendment — no easy trick — to reform pension benefits growth and “ensure the retirement security of government workers, protect taxpayers and provide the public services Illinoisans value.”
Illinois remains in a deep fiscal hole — with its pensions and other tax and budgetary matters. It didn’t get into the hole overnight, and it can’t escape it overnight. But if it ever hopes to get out of this hole, it needs to stop digging.