The pension fund for Illinois lawmakers is the state’s most insolvent system. Taxpayers bail it out every year. If they didn’t, the General Assembly Retirement System, or GARS, would only have enough assets to pay retired politicians for another 2.5 years.
Illinois politicians face no obstacles to reforming their own retirement system, so why haven’t they?
It’s not as if GARS has government unions that would oppose reforms in court. Illinois politicians are in full control. GARS funds lawmakers’ pensions and their pensions only. Politicians have no excuse not to show real leadership and reform their own retirement plans.
State lawmakers should create a new defined-contribution plan for themselves that’s fair and ends their insolvent pension fund.
Their reforms could serve as the basis for the reform of Illinois’ other state and local retirement systems.
Taxpayers stuck subsidizing politicians’ pensions
Illinois’ state lawmakers receive the fifth-highest base salary in the nation at $67,500 per year, and earn an average salary of nearly $81,000 – not too bad for what is legally a part-time job.
On top of footing the bill for state politicians’ compensation, Illinoisans must also contribute toward their lawmakers’ practically bankrupt pension fund. In 2015, taxpayers will contribute the equivalent of nearly $100,000 for each active lawmaker enrolled in the system just to keep GARS afloat.
That’s a lot to pay for a problem that state politicians could fix tomorrow by introducing actual reforms.
To help prop up the system, taxpayers are required to contribute 11 times more than lawmakers to the pension fund. In 2015, the state (meaning taxpayers) will put nearly $16 million toward lawmaker pensions. Lawmakers, on the other hand, will put in just $1.5 million.
By 2045, taxpayers will be paying more than $43 million a year into GARS while lawmakers will be contributing only $4 million.
The massive taxpayer payments into GARS are the only reason it hasn’t gone broke.
But there’s a likely reason why many Illinois lawmakers are hanging on to their current pension plans. Many have become career politicians earning full-time benefits – even though they were never meant to be career workers like teachers, police officers or firefighters.
According to GARS rules, retired lawmakers earn a pension equal to 85 percent of their final salary after just 20 years of service.
As a result, the average retired lawmaker receives $54,000 in annual pension benefits. And that pension grows every year – retirees are also entitled to an annual, automatic and compounded 3 percent cost-of-living adjustment.
These overly generous benefits for part-time work put lawmakers in direct conflict with the need to reform GARS.
By reforming their own retirement plans, lawmakers can demonstrate to their constituents – as well as other government workers – that they are willing to lead by example.
Ted Dabrowski is Vice President of Policy and John Klingner is a policy analyst for the Illinois Policy Institute.