Illinois House Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie, D-Chicago, has announced she will not run for re-election in 2018.
Large pension payouts await the longtime lawmaker. And the fund from which those payouts will be drawn is one example of how Illinois’ most powerful politicians have shown little interest in leading the state out of its pension crisis.
The secret to a big spike
A little-known provision within the General Assembly Retirement System, or GARS, gifts massive pension payouts to state lawmakers who have been in office the longest – the very men and women responsible for the state’s pension crisis, and who refuse needed reforms.
When she steps down, Currie will start drawing a six-figure pension after one year.
That’s because GARS allows lawmakers who were elected before 2003 to hoard pension “spikes.” After serving 20 years in office or turning age 55, whichever comes later, these lawmakers bank a 3 percent boost to their eventual pensions each year.
Currie has been in the House since 1979 and is now 77. Therefore, she has been collecting 3 percent boosts every year since her 20th year of service concluded at the start of 2000.
When she retires as majority leader, her salary will likely stand at over $91,000, including her base salary and leadership bonus. That means her first-year pension payment will be more than $77,000.
Then the spikes kick in. Her second-year pension will total more than $121,000, according to GARS rules.
Of course, Currie has contributed a portion of each paycheck to GARS throughout her career. But within three years, the state will have paid back more than her entire contribution in pension checks.
Currie is not the only active member of the General Assembly who will benefit from this provision upon retirement. House Speaker Mike Madigan, Senate President John Cullerton and other longtime lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are also set to cash in.
The state’s worst pension system
The Land of Lincoln is home to the nation’s worst pension crisis. Moody’s Investors Service calculates Illinois’ state pension debt is more than $250 billion.
GARS is Illinois’ worst-funded state pension system, with just under 14 cents for every dollar needed to make future payments. That means it can only afford to pay out benefits for two more years.
Taxpayers actually pay 2.5 times for their lawmakers – once for salaries and 1.5 times to bail out the lawmakers’ failed pension fund.
In addition to providing 401(k)s to all new government workers – a sensible change for GARS would be to put the system out to pasture. Otherwise, taxpayers will continue to be asked to bail it out.
Nearly 40 state representatives and 11 state senators have already opted out of GARS, along with Gov. Bruce Rauner and Lt. Gov. Evelyn Sanguinetti.
Abolishing GARS would show true leadership in addressing the state’s biggest fiscal problem. And lawmakers would face little opposition.
But with longtime legislative leaders such as Currie set to receive large payments from the status quo, one can see why change may be difficult.