In recent weeks there has been a steady stream of news describing how state government's upcoming contribution to Illinois' public pension systems is threatening other priorities in the state's $34 billion budget. Vital funding for schools, universities, human services and roads and bridges all have been held up as potential victims of a $7.7 billion pension obligation that is burdening the state's financial resources.
All of this attention might lead any reasonable person to believe that Teachers' Retirement System and the state's other pension funds created this looming financial squeeze.They did not. The state's fiscal problems are not our fault, but they are our reality.
It is a matter of cause and effect. TRS has been crystal clear for nearly a year that the system faces insolvency in about 20 years unless there are changes made in the long-term funding of public pensions. The current pension debacle is only the most visible effect of the real cause: decades of fiscal mismanagement and poor budget discipline in state government.
Fixating on pensions is not going to fix the state budget. We all must stay focused on the real problem and correct generations of errors that have left Illinois' finances in a shambles.
There has been much talk about retirees and "shared sacrifice" during the ongoing pension debate. But when you look at Illinois through the broader prism of the budgetary challenges facing all of state government, it becomes clear that the uncertainty, frustration and anger felt by TRS members over their futures already is being shared by others. Right now. Everywhere. It's being felt by anyone dependent on state government funds -- teachers, university professors, doctors and nurses, social service providers, police, prison guards and municipal workers, as well as the public they serve.
Just like everyone else, TRS must do its part and prepare for the harsh realities that are inherent with true, government-wide fiscal reform. Securing the future of the state's pension systems is a vital first step. It would clear the way for other fundamental improvements to the way Illinois conducts its fiscal affairs.
But we also recognize that correcting the pension problem is only one step toward restoring Illinois' financial integrity. On the morning after any pension changes are settled in law, it would be irresponsible to wake up and congratulate ourselves for a job well done. There is far too much additional work to do.
To prevent a slide back into the abyss, Illinois needs structural budget reforms that will eliminate a long-standing gap between the revenue that is collected each year and the money that is spent each year; as well as a plan to eliminate a $9 billion backlog of unpaid bills. These difficult but necessary actions are essential if state government is to adequately fund schools, human services, public safety and needed infrastructure investments that are essential for a healthy economy and a healthy state.
As the new legislative session unfolds, let's not use the state's pension problems to mask a harsher reality, or as a replacement for a comprehensive financial solution for all of Illinois. We can and must do better than that.
Dick Ingram is executive director of the Teachers Retirement System in Illinois.