37 lawmakers decline pensions while state faces unfunded liability

By Scott Reeder
Illinois News Network

SPRINGFIELD – Four years ago, state Rep. Tom Morrison walked into a state office and announced he didn’t want a pension.

“I got a blank look in response. The General Assembly has an incredibly generous pension plan, and I was told I was the first legislator to choose not to participate in more than 14 years. I guess I was a trend-setter because today one-sixth of the General Assembly doesn’t participate,” the Palatine Republican said.

Illinois_News_Network_logoIndeed, documents obtained by Illinois News Network through the state Freedom of Information Act found that 37 lawmakers have opted not to participate in the General Assembly Retirement System.

State Rep. Kathleen Willis, D-Addison, said she opted not to take a pension so she could be more objective when dealing with state pension reform.

“While we are doing pension reform, I found strongly that I shouldn’t be part of the problem we are trying to correct. … I sort of practiced what I preached,” she said.

Others who have decided not to participate in the pension plan say they don’t aspire to spend decades in the legislature.

“I decided not to participate because politics is not my career,” said state Rep. C.D. Davidsmeyer, R-Jacksonville.

“My wife and I have done a good job of saving for retirement on our own through Roth IRAs,” Davidsmeyer. “I never considered it a political advantage to not participate. But, frankly, most of the people who don’t participate in the pension plan are doing it because they consider it a political advantage.”

State Sen. Neil Anderson, R-Rock Island, said he said he believes it would be morally wrong for him to draw pensions from both the city of Moline, where he works as a firefighter, and from the state.

“In Springfield, it’s easy not to do the right thing,” he said. “We really are offered lavish pensions that we can become fully vested in in a short amount of time. The health insurance we are offered is really generous, too. Some people draw three or four different pensions. That’s not right. That’s why I chose not to participate in the pension or the health insurance plan.”

Both Gov. Bruce Rauner and Comptroller Leslie Munger also have opted not to accept state pensions.

“I’m very well aware of the difficult pension situation we have in the state,” Munger said. “I don’t want to add to the problem of the state.”

Pensions can prove costly to taxpayers.

For example, although Illinoisans recently voted Pat Quinn out of office, they are paying the former governor $137,000 a year.

Quinn began drawing the pension his first week out of office in January. His pension is based on his time as governor, lieutenant governor, treasurer and as an aide to former Gov. Dan Walker.

Illinois state pension systems are the worst funded in the United States with a $111 billion shortfall.

As more lawmakers opt out of the state retirement systems, it will inevitably affect overall pension policy said Jim Nowlan, a former political scientist at the University of Illinois.

“Either consciously or unconsciously, lawmakers are influenced by the fact that when they are dealing with pension reform they are dealing with their own pensions, too,” he said. “I think those who have opted out of the pension system will be less generous.”

Rauner has proposed reforming the system by reducing future earned pension benefits. A separate plan pushed by legislative leaders that would curb cost of living adjustments will soon be considered by the state Supreme Court.

“By not accepting a pension, I’m able to say to state workers I’m not asking you to make any greater sacrifice than I’m making,” Morrison said.

State Rep. Peter Breen, R-Lombard, said defined contribution plans such as 401ks are superior to defined benefit programs such as pensions. The government worker version of a 401k is a 457 plan.

Breen enrolled in a state-sponsored 457 Plan where only the money he orders taken from his paycheck is invested.

“I like the idea of actually owning my retirement savings,” he said.

ilnews.org

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