SPRINGFIELD — While Illinois politicians wrestle with how to tame the state’s ballooning pension shortfall, some of those leaving elected office in January will contribute to the problem by drawing large pensions of their own.
For example, three statewide candidates rejected this year by voters will be eligible for hefty pensions.
Gov. Pat Quinn will be eligible for $136,000 in pension payments per year when he retires in January. His pension is for the time he served as governor, lieutenant governor, treasurer and as an aide in Gov. Dan Walker’s administration.
State Treasurer Dan Rutherford failed to gain the GOP nomination for governor but will be eligible for an $115,319 pension in January. The pension is for his time as treasurer and as a state legislator.
State Rep. Tom Cross, R-Oswego, lost his bid for state treasurer but still can collect an annual pension of $81,016 based on his time as a state lawmaker. Cross has served as House minority leader, but was able to maintain outside employment as a lawyer.
In addition to their pensions, lawmakers first elected before Jan. 1, 2011, are eligible for free health insurance for their rest of their lives if they served at least four years in the General Assembly.
Lawmakers can begin receiving their pensions at age 55 once they are fully vested. To be vested in the system, a lawmaker or other state elected official, who entered office before 2011, need only to have served four years.
“Legislators shouldn’t receive a pension for a part-time job. In many ways, they are insulated from the realities the rest of us are. They have their retirements provided for. They have health insurance provided,” said Rae Ann McNeilly, executive director of Chicago-based Taxpayers United of America.
She suggested that instead of providing lawmakers with pensions, legislators should save and invest for their own retirements.
But not everyone agrees with McNeilly’s assessment.
For example, state Sen. Mike Jacobs, D-East Moline, said he deserves the pension he will receive.
Jacobs, 54, lost his bid for re-election Nov. 4, but he will be eligible to begin drawing his $34,579 pension next year based on his 10 years of service in the Illinois Senate.
“Public life is very difficult. A lot of people don’t realize how much you put into it,” Jacobs said “If I’ve got 10 years in I’ve earned every damn cent of it. I’ve been attacked and ridiculed. It’s been very difficult on my family. It’s not an easy life.”
But McNeilly said there is an inherent conflict of interest for judges, lawmakers and senior policymakers to be drawing state pensions while making decisions on the state’s pension liabilities.
“These people working for government for the most part earn more than they would if they were in the private sector; they collect far larger pensions. In fact, most people in the private sector aren’t eligible for a defined benefit plan. Our retirements are subject to the ebbs and flows of the marketplace, but we are being told that we have to support government pensions to protect them from the ebbs and flows of the marketplace.”
Eileen Norcross, a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University took a different tack.
“Illinois has the worst-funded pension system in the nation. It would show some real leadership if these elected officials would step away from pensions and go to defined contribution (410-k type) plans. Think of all of the teachers and other public workers who face diminishment of their benefits because the money is not there.”
In fact, two lawmakers leaving the General Assembly, State Rep. Rep. Josh Harms, R-Watseka, and Brad Halbrook, R-Shelbyville, opted not to participate in the pension system altogether.
After losing an election or retiring, lawmakers frequently return to Springfield to pursue lucrative careers as lobbyists. They also can take jobs in the executive branch, which can further boost their pensions.
Jacobs said he does not plan to lobby or pursue a state job, but is not sure what he will do when he leaves office in January.
“I think I’m going to use my considerable talents somewhere in the private sector,” he said.
Quinn has not responded to media inquiries about his plans after leaving office. And Rutherford was not available to discuss his future, his spokeswoman said Thursday.
Of course, it isn’t just those who lost on Election Day who will be able to collect state pensions.
For example, state Rep. Mike Bost, R-Carbondale, won election to the U.S. House of Representatives, where he will receive a salary of $174,000 from U.S. taxpayers. And he is eligible to collect an annual pension of $73,0176 from the state of Illinois while he is in Congress. Bost served 20 years in the Illinois General Assembly.
Bost told Illinois News Network that he has not decided whether to begin collecting his pension when he turns 55 next year.
But he added he believes the state’s pension system is in crisis and believes Illinois should either reduce pension benefits for new hires or put them into 401-k type plans.
“Something has got to be done; the state can’t just go bankrupt,” he said.
Scott Reeder is a reporter for the Illinois News Network.