Editorial: Illinois leaders, seize moment, reform pensions | Editorials

Illinois leaders won the right to celebrate after successfully reforming a school funding system that has for too long robbed too many poor kids of a quality education.

Mission accomplished, Gov. Bruce Rauner, Democratic and GOP legislative leaders and lawmakers on the right side of the historic school funding formula vote last week. So, by all means, take the long holiday weekend to bask in the afterglow.

But don’t get used to it. Starting Tuesday, we expect you to use what you’ve learned to tackle the single biggest problem accelerating our state’s race to the bottom.

Yes, the new school funding formula will distribute money more fairly. But it won’t increase by a single dollar the resources our state has to spend to better educate our children. Closing the giant gap between rich and poor districts also doesn’t make solvent a state crippled by unpaid bills and owing its employees a-quarter-of-a-trillion dollars when they retire.

Thanks to years of using public pension funds to prop up the budget so leaders could avoid making tough choices, our $250-billion-plus in unfunded pension liabilities robs schools and universities, social service agencies, roads, bridges, mass transit and other things Illinoisans need and have a right to expect. That giant sucking sound is your tax dollars being siphoned into that growing pension hole.

A billion here and a billion there, the old saw goes, and pretty soon you’re talking about real money. So just  how big is the chasm in the state with the worst pension crisis in the nation?

“To put that into context, that’s more than the combined market value of four major Illinois companies: Boeing, Caterpillar, United Continental and Allstate,” CNN/ Money wrote following the state budget bill in July, which ended a costly two-year budget stalemate.

Worse, that 11th hour budget deal did nothing to resolve the fundamental structural issues bankrupting the state despite increasing state income taxes by a whopping one-third. So our unpaid bills continue to pile up, along with the pension IOUs we’re handing down to our children and grandchildren.

We simply must reverse course.

To be sure, the way to pension reform is wrought with legal and political roadblocks. But so was the long road to closing the biggest funding gap in the nation between rich and poor districts. Despite similarly long odds, our leaders put politics aside to work together to do the impossible.

Indeed, in lauding the compromise that led to last week’s historic school funding deal, Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan also suggested the right path to pension reform.

“Even if all members did not agree with 100 percent of what is in the final bill, this bill still delivers 100 percent of what schools throughout Illinois need,” he said.

The resulting school funding compromise, House Minority Leader Jim Durkin said, was “probably the most significant legislation to pass out of this chamber in decades.”

The Western Springs Republican also called it “a great day for Illinois.”

It was.

Now let’s find a way to celebrate another great and historic day by making the changes needed to defuse a public pension bomb that threatens to destroy Illinois.

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