Reprint from Illinois Policy Pensions June 5, 2020

62 former state lawmakers receiving more than $100K pensions

Illinois’ state legislature is technically a part-time job, but 62 former lawmakers receive a pension that tops $100,000 a year. Tally the pension earnings of all retired lawmakers, and 94 of them are in the $1 million club.

Retired lawmakers draw from the General Assembly Retirement System. Lawmakers have shorted their own system so much that it only has 16 cents of every $1 it needs – the biggest gap of the five statewide public pension systems.

Of those 62 lawmakers making more than $100,000 a year, the average one receives $132,753 in annual pension pay after contributing a total of $133,588 during nearly 24 years of public service. The total payout so far during retirement averaged more than $1.5 million.

In other words, for every $1 those lawmakers contributed to their retirements, they have taken nearly $12 out of the system.

Illinois’ pension debt is over $137 billion by the state’s accounting, but could be as high as $241 billion according to an independent estimate. The five state systems had only 40% of what they needed to meet their obligations in 2019, an amount that held flat during the year even though taxpayers poured a record $10 billion into the five systems.

One top earner is former Illinois Gov. Jim Edgar, whose landmark pension legislation, the “Edgar ramp,” paved the way for today’s crisis. Edgar has become a millionaire in retirement, accumulating over $2.5 million just from GARS since 2001.

Even those who contributed less or served fewer years have seen incredible returns on their investment. Former General Assembly member William Marovitz contributed just $56,708 during his 18-year career but has earned $1.56 million from his pension. Former lieutenant governor and attorney general Neil Hartigan recorded 12 years of service for his GARS pension but has received almost $2.2 million since he retired in 1993 at age 55. Former state Sen. Earlean Collins has been comfortably retired since 1998 when she was just 51, having earned $1.67 million since.

A newcomer to the list since the Illinois Policy Institute last reviewed the data is former State Rep. Lou Lang. Lang resigned from the General Assembly in the first week of 2019 and joined a lobbying firm. His 32 years in the House of Representatives, many of which were spent as House Speaker Michael Madigan’s right-hand man, was marred by a sexual harassment claim against him in 2018. In his first year drawing from GARS, he received an annual pension of $101,296.

Former House Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie was also able to retire in 2019 with a six-figure pension after nearly 40 years in Springfield. In her first year receiving money from GARS, she took home $129,978.

Other notable lawmakers earning six figure pensions each year include former U.S. Sen. Roland Burris, governors James Thompson and Pat Quinn, as well as former Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley.

All told, 320 former lawmakers are collecting $21.2 million annually after contributing a total of $29.5 million toward their retirements. Their total draw from the system has been $220.6 million, with 93 of them topping $1 million so far.

Illinois’ generous pension system and salary for lawmakers rewards former General Assembly members for spending years refusing to fix the shattered system that costs taxpayers ever more and eats away the services Illinoisans need. Illinois’ broken ethics laws allow Lang and others to collect public pensions even though they exited the revolving door from the Statehouse to return the next day as a paid lobbyist.

Lawmaker pensions are also more generous than those for teachers and other state workers.

Illinois Tier 1 teachers can receive up to 75% of their last, highest four years of salary. Tier 1 lawmakers, however, are able to receive up to 85% of their salary as of their final day. A lawmaker receives the maximum pension after 20 years, while a teacher doesn’t receive the maximum until 34 years.

Then there is the 3% compounding annual raise, which will double a lawmaker’s pension in 25 years.

Illinois’ five pension systems are in peril, because some experts see a 40% pension debt as the point of no return from which a system cannot recover. Serious reform is needed to protect already-earned pension benefits, while allowing the state to bring the growth rate of future benefit accruals in line with inflation.

That requires amending the Illinois Constitution.

Subsequent pension reforms should include raising retirement ages for younger workers, capping maximum pensionable salaries and doing away with guaranteed permanent benefit increases in favor of a true cost-of-living adjustment pegged to inflation. Together, these changes could save Illinois $2 billion a year and completely fund state pensions by 2045.

State lawmakers need to end their reputation for gaming the pension system, and start fixing it.

Update (June 8, 2020): This piece has been updated to reflect the passing of former state lawmaker Art Berman, according to state Rep. Kelly Cassidy, D-Chicago.


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