The near ubiquitous claim that Illinois is facing a “pension crisis” has rarely been challenged. The failure to examine this customary framing of the fiscal condition of Illinois’ five state pension systems limits how policymakers conceptualize their funding strategy. This white paper, jointly authored by researchers from the Project for Middle Class Renewal at the School of Labor and Employment Relations, the Government Finance Research Center and the Institute of Government and Public Affairs (all at the University of Illinois), argues that the “pension crisis” framework negatively influences discussions of policy options.
Our goal with this paper is to rethink the conversation about pensions and the state’s finances in several ways. First, we argue that the funded ratio and unfunded liabilities, conventional ways of assessing a pension system’s fiscal health, are inadequate metrics that reinforce short-term thinking. We argue that the focus should be on long-term trends and peer comparison. In addition, attention should be paid to identifying what the drivers are of negative trends and carefully assessing whether action is needed.
Second, we argue that a “pension crisis” is a situation in which the pension system is insolvent and unable to make benefit payments to current retirees. This is not the present scenario in Illinois. Nonetheless, we recognize that both the state and the pension systems face significant fiscal challenges. Third, rather than a singular problem, we contend that there are actually two, interrelated and in-conflict issues: