Illinois again fails to act on pensions, risking credit downgrade

Tue Jan 8, 2013 7:39pm EST

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By Joanne von Alroth

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. Jan 8 (Reuters) - The Illinois legislature adjourned on Tuesday without acting to restore the health of the nation's most underfunded state pension systems, risking another downgrade of its already low credit ratings.

After days of wrangling at the state Capitol of Springfield, lawmakers ended their last meeting of a "lame duck" legislative session without voting on a pension reform measure.

Majority Democrats, worried about opposition from labor unions, realized they did not have enough support to pass a reform proposal and decided not to vote on any measure.

Failure to act means that work to fix a pension shortfall of $96.8 billion will have to start from scratch when a newly elected legislature is sworn in on Wednesday.

Moody's Investors Service warned last month that without action on the pension problem, it could downgrade the current A2 Illinois debt rating, the lowest among the states it rates. A lower credit rating could increase the cost of borrowing.

The latest failure underscores the problems Illinois faces in dealing with its "most pressing challenge," Moody's analyst Ted Hampton said on Tuesday after the legislature adjourned.

"Each time the General Assembly has difficulty reaching a consensus it seems to reinforce the idea this is a real steep hill the state has to climb," Hampton said.

Standard & Poor's Ratings Services' downgrade of Illinois' credit rating to A with a negative outlook in August reflected in part the lack of action on pensions, S&P analyst Robin Prunty said on Tuesday.

She added the progress on reforms will be a key factor for the state's rating over the next year or so.

Warning of a credit downgrade and economic doom, Democratic Governor Pat Quinn tried on Tuesday to push through a plan to form a commission to recommend a fix to the pension problem. Under his plan, the commission's recommendations would have become law unless the legislature voted to reject them.

Dan Montgomery, president of the Illinois Federation of Teachers, said the measure represented a "hail Mary" pass by Quinn.

"It's a rather sad attempt to get something done," he said during a House committee hearing on the measure.

Illinois state finances are buckling under the weight of sizeable and growing annual pension payments that are siphoning money for essential state services such as healthcare and public safety.

Illinois is among a number of states and local governments facing a financial crisis because they failed to adequately fund their pension systems for years, especially during the Great Recession in 2008-09, which hurt government revenues.

Legislation aimed at fully funding the Illinois pension system in 30 years by boosting worker contributions, raising retirement ages and limiting cost-of-living adjustments for retirees failed to get enough support.

Labor unions, which are major contributors to the campaigns of the majority Democrats in Illinois, strongly oppose the proposal. They have threatened to challenge any changes to pensions in court as unconstitutional. The Illinois constitution has strong protections for pension benefits.

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Comments (1)
You’re darn right the Illinois Constitution has strong protections: it says that membership in a pension system is a CONTRACTUAL RIGHT that cannot be diminished. Legally and morally, these constant attempts to reduce workers’ pensions are equivalent to reducing contractually fixed coupon rates on bonds issued in the past, or arbitrarily cutting payments on fixed annuities. If courts allowed such measures to stand, if they allowed corporations and governments who are perfectly capable of paying their obligations to not do so because it is inconvenient, then capital markets and insurance markets in this country would collapse, taking our economy along with them. The solution to Illinois’ pension problems is quite simple: raise taxes modestly, devote the increased revenues to pensions and (finally!) fund them properly.

Jan 08, 2013 11:43pm EST  --  Report as abuse
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California state worker Albert Jagow (L) goes over his retirement options with Calpers Retirement Program Specialist JeanAnn Kirkpatrick at the Calpers regional office in Sacramento, California October 21, 2009. Calpers, the largest U.S. public pension fund, manages retirement benefits for more than 1.6 million people, with assets comparable in value to the entire GDP of Israel. The Calpers investment portfolio had a historic drop in value, going from a peak of $250 billion in the fall of 2007 to $167 billion in March 2009, a loss of about a third during that period. It is now around $200 billion. REUTERS/Max Whittaker   (UNITED STATES) - RTXPWOZ

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