How Would Illinois’ Supreme Court Pension Ruling Affect Public Schools?

Illinois

Arguments will soon be underway in the lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of Illinois’ 2013 pension overhaul.

Many observers expect the state Supreme Court to uphold the opinions of lower courts and rule the pension law unconstitutional.

If the law were overturned, what would it mean for Chicago Public Schools?

In a column in the Chicago Tribune over the weekend, Chicago Board of Education president David Vitale talked about the implications of such a ruling for Chicago’s schools.

Vitale writes:

You may not realize that if the Supreme Court upholds the lower court’s approach, it will have a significant impact on Chicago Public Schools and the nearly 400,000 students we serve. These consequences are potentially catastrophic, and even under a best-case scenario, would still cripple CPS’ ability to fulfill its obligation to educate these students, many of whom are from disadvantaged backgrounds or in need of special education services. The fact is, CPS does not have the resources to both shoulder the entire burden of saving the pensions and serving its students.

In the absence of changes to pension funding, CPS will be forced to decide between funding the pensions of retired employees and funding the education of Chicago students.

[…]

CPS’ projected deficit for next year is $1.1 billion, and pension costs account for approximately $700 million of that amount. While pension reform alone will not eliminate that huge deficit, it is an essential component of any solution. Without pension reform, there simply will be no alternative to implementing even deeper, more painful cuts that will directly affect the classroom; we have exhausted all other alternatives. To put these cuts into perspective, each $100 million spent on pensions translates into 1,000 fewer teachers. And a smaller number of teachers translates directly into larger class sizes and less attention and fewer educational opportunities for students.

Over the weekend, Moody’s downgraded Chicago Public School’s credit rating to Baa3, one notch above junk. The agency cited pension costs as a major driver of the downgrade.

Chicago Pension Lawsuits Put on Hold Pending Supreme Court Ruling

chicago

Two lawsuits, both challenging the legality of recent pension reforms enacted by Chicago, have been put on hold until the Illinois Supreme Court rules on the state’s pension overhaul.

The plaintiffs filed the motion to put the lawsuit on pause, and it was approved on Thursday.

More from Reuters:

Lawsuits seeking to void a law aimed at shoring up the finances of two Chicago pension funds have been put on hold pending a ruling by the Illinois Supreme Court on a law affecting state public retirement funds, participants in the litigation said on Monday.

“Given the relative timing of the state and city cases, and because a decision upholding the (Sangamon County) circuit court in the state case could be determinative in the city case, the plaintiffs decided it is sensible to stay further proceedings until the supreme court’s ruling is received,” said Anders Lindall, a spokesman for American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 31.

[…]

During hearings on the preliminary injunction, Chicago’s attorney, Richard Prendergast, contended the 2014 law enacted for the city’s funds would not be derailed by a supreme court ruling voiding the 2013 law for state pensions because the city’s arguments go beyond the need to invoke police powers to ensure the funding of essential public services.

Chicago argues that the law does not unconstitutionally diminish pension benefits because without it the two pension funds would become insolvent in just years. The city’s attorneys have also suggested Chicago would not be responsible for retiree payments should the funds run out of money.

Chicago implemented pension reforms, effective as of Jan. 1, that limit cost-of-living increases and increase contributions from both employees and the city.

 

Photo by bitsorf via Flickr CC LIcense

Documents: Illinois Gov. Rauner’s Budget Will Recommend Pension Cuts

Bruce Rauner

Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner will give his budget address on Wednesday afternoon. He’ll announce a number of cost-cutting proposals, and pensions are sure to be featured.

What specifically does Rauner have in mind for the state pension system?

Greg Hinz of Crain’s Chicago Business got a hold of budget documents that hint at Rauner’s plans.

From Crain’s:

On pensions, Rauner is proposing to go substantially farther than the reforms passed a year ago by the General Assembly, reforms that now are being challenged before the Illinois Supreme Court.

Specifically, according to budget documents shared with me, Rauner intends to save $2.2 billion next year, cutting the state’s unfunded pension liability by $25 billion. He’d do that by freezing all benefits as of July 1, moving workers to a new plan in which cost-of-living hikes would be cut from the current 3 percent a year to the lesser of 3 percent or half of inflation, non-compounding; the normal retirement age would be 67, and overtime would not be counted in pension benefits.

These changes would apply to benefits earned after July 1. Benefits earned prior to that date would be paid at the previous rate. The Rauner document says that makes it constitutional as “earned benefits” are not cut. Expect a court challenge to that.

All of these changes would apply only to plans covering teachers, university employees and other state workers—not public safety employees.

Read an overview of the rest of Rauner’s probable budget proposals here.

 

By Steven Vance [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Video: Understanding the Illinois Pension Problem [Part 2]

Here’s attorney Matthew Benson, with his second video exploring how Illinois’ pension system got to where it is today, the severity of its underfunding, and whether workers could be affected by reforms.

View Part One here.

 

Photo credit: “Gfp-illinois-springfield-capitol-and-sky” by Yinan Chen – www.goodfreephotos.com (gallery, image). Via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Gfp-illinois-springfield-capitol-and-sky.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Gfp-illinois-springfield-capitol-and-sky.jpg

Illinois Universities Pension Hires Search Firm to Find New Executive Director

NOW HIRINGWilliam Mabe, executive director of the State University Retirement System of Illinois (SURS), announced in September that he would be retiring on March 31.

SURS has now hired an executive search firm, the Hollins Group, to find his replacement before Mabe’s retirement date.

From the Associated Press:

The State Universities Retirement System has hired a search firm to help it find a new director.

The executive committee of the SURS board of trustees voted this month to hire The Hollins Group of Chicago.

Executive Director William Mabe (MAYB’) plans to retire in March.

Derrick Buckingham will serve as lead consultant. He is senior vice president and managing director for The Hollins Group.

In a September interview with the Chicago Sun-Times, Mabe talked about the reasons behind his retirement:

Mabe, 67, said in an interview…that he could have stayed on for another three years, but chose to retire now to do other things with his life.

“I’ve been here for five years and I’ve stayed as long as I had planned to stay,” Mabe said. “The pension issue had nothing to do with it. It’s still lingering in the courts, and (the SURS leadership) did the heavy lifting we had to do. … I wanted to retire when that was completed and things were quiet.”

SURS has 227,000 members.

 

Photo by Nathan Stephens via Flickr CC License

Illinois Teachers’ Fund To Stick With PIMCO, But Backup Plan Remains in Place

Flag/map of Illinois

In the weeks since Bill Gross’ departure from PIMCO, dozens of public pension funds around the country have carefully considered whether to stay with the firm or move on.

In late September, one of the largest plans in the country, the Florida Retirement Systems, announced it was cutting PIMCO in favor of BlackRock.

The Illinois Teachers’ Retirement System announced Thursday it would keep its assets with PIMCO, but would still be watching the firm closely. From Pensions & Investments:

Illinois Teachers’ Retirement System, Springfield, will not terminate any of the nine strategies managed for it by Pacific Investment Management Co., but likely will keep the company on its watchlist.

The $45.3 billion pension fund’s investment staff has had “backup portfolio managers” lined up since rumors started swirling earlier this year of the departure of William H. Gross, co-founder and former chief investment officer, said Scottie Bevill, senior investment officer for fixed income and real assets, to trustees at an investment committee meeting on Wednesday.

[…]

PIMCO manages a total of about $3 billion for the pension fund — all fixed-income, credit or global tactical asset allocation approaches — representing about 6.6% of total fund assets.

PIMCO has been on the pension fund’s watchlist for personnel changes since February, when Mohamed El-Erian, PIMCO’s former co-chief investment officer, announced he would leave the firm.

Trustees approved the proposed watchlist, with PIMCO on it, during the investment committee meeting. The full board must approve the committee’s recommendation at its Friday meeting.

Pension funds that have PIMCO on their watchlists include: the Texas Municipal Retirement System, Indiana Public Retirement System, New York City Employee Retirement System, and the Hawaii Employees’ Retirement System.

Illinois Loophole Lets Teacher Union Leaders Boost Pensions After Leaving Classroom

Springfield, Illinois

A Washington Times investigation has uncovered an interesting legal quirk in Illinois that lets retired teachers continue to build pension credit after retirement. The law allows teachers who later become union leaders to credit their union salaries towards their pension.

More from the Washington Times:

Collectively, 40 retired union leaders draw $408,136 per month in Illinois teachers’ retirement pension, or $4.9 million per year, according to data generated at the request of The Washington Times by OpenTheBooks.com, an online portal aggregating 1.3 billion lines of federal, state and local spending records.

Twenty-four of those retired union leaders have already collected more than $1 million each in retirement benefits, and the payments are likely to continue for years to come, the data show.

The union bosses collecting the payouts had jobs at the National Education Association (NEA), the Illinois Education Association (IEA) and the Illinois Federation of Teachers (IFT) after their teaching careers. Most got massive pay raises when they jumped from the classroom to the unions, swelling their pension payouts by large amounts at the expense of taxpayers.

The labor leaders contribute into the state pension program during the time they work for the unions, but their larger salaries are then used to calculate their final retirement eligibility. The result is taxpayers must pay pensions to these leaders that are exponentially larger than if they just continued to teach in the classroom.

The arrangements live on even as the Illinois Teachers Retirement System (TRS) hurdles toward insolvency — it is currently underfunded by an estimated $54 billion — with teachers currently in the classroom questioning what sort of retirement they’ll receive. Right now, the TRS could only afford to pay out 40 cents on the dollar of each retiree it owes.

“Government pensions should go to government workers, period,” said Adam Andrzejewski, founder of OpenTheBooks.com. “The pension system for the hard-working teacher and public servant is being drained by union bosses with special pension privileges.”

It’s important to note that the employees in question were still contributing to the pension system during the time they worked with unions — so they weren’t getting a completely free ride.

More details on the law in question, from the Washington Times:

The labor officials are able to collect teacher pensions because of a pension code carve-out granted by the Illinois General Assembly back in 1987 — a change for which the unions lobbied heavily.

Under the pension code, active employees of the IFT and the IEA with previous teaching service can be TRS members. The IFT and IEA have been able to designate employees as active TRS members if they were already TRS members because of previous creditable teaching service. Since the 1940s, the pension code has allowed active employees of the Illinois Association of School Boards with prior TRS creditable service to be active TRS members.

The statutes outlining additional benefits within Illinois state and local pensions have many times “been amended in the state pension code without much public discourse, financial analysis or even justification as to why we should add on nongovernment employees such as municipal associations, unions or anyone else,” said Laurence Msall, president of the Civic Federation, a nonpartisan research organization. “This is the definition of insider benefits that don’t serve identifiable public purpose.”

In 2012, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn signed a law that prevented teachers from using service time with unions to boost pension benefits – but the law only applies to union work done before the teachers were hired, not after.

Illinois Pension Board Director to Retire; Search for New Director Begins Soon

Board room chair

William Mabe, executive director of the State University Retirement System of Illinois, has announced that he will retire on March 31.

The System plans to hire a firm to search for and secure a new director by the time Mabe leaves his post.

From the Chicago Sun-Times:

William Mabe, executive director of the State University Retirement System, will retire on March 31, and five of the 11 board members’ terms will expire next summer.

[…]

The board expects to hire a search firm at an Oct. 30 meeting to find a new executive director, and intends to choose the new leader by the time Mabe retires, a spokesman said.

Mabe, 67, said in an interview Thursday that he could have stayed on for another three years, but chose to retire now to do other things with his life.

“I’ve been here for five years and I’ve stayed as long as I had planned to stay,” Mabe said. “The pension issue had nothing to do with it. It’s still lingering in the courts, and (the SURS leadership) did the heavy lifting we had to do. … I wanted to retire when that was completed and things were quiet.”

There may be further turnover on the board, as the terms of five more trustees expire in June 2015.