For state pensions, use a scalpel not an ax

Does it make sense to slash public pensions of the lowest paid, or to cut excessive pensions at the top? If the top 70 university, legislative and judicial pensions are fatter than the state employees and teachers, why would politicians look to cut the two leanest pension systems first?

I’ll tell you why, because they can. Teachers and state employees have the least amount of influence.

The Illinois General Assembly, not the unions, created the five-tier caste of state pensions, and established benefits. The five systems are: SERS (state employees), TRS (teachers), SURS (universities), GARS (General Assembly) and JRS (judges) in Illinois.

According to the Illinois Retirement Security Initiative the average pension of an Illinois state employee (SERS) was $26,663 in 2010 ( while retired teachers received $43,000 a year.

The State University Retirement System (SURS) reported an average pension of $50,029 and the General Assembly retirees received just a smidgen more with an average $50,050. At the top of the pension totem pole sit Illinois judges, whose 720 retirees averaged $104,000 a year!

State employees worked 25-30 years, teachers averaged 29 years and university employees 19.5 years. Legislators worked an average of 14 years of part-time employment.

The top 70 state employees (SERS) received $114,000 to $186,000, teachers $181,000 to $270,000, while the top 70 university retirees took $195,000-$426,000, along with a $5,000-$12,000 a year raise. The highest paid legislator received $197,503, more than he ever made as a legislator. (I can’t find the top 70 pensions for the General Assembly.) For judges, the top 70 pensions ranged from $171,000 to $186,764. Interestingly, the pension of the previous Senate president jumped $40,000 a year after his retirement.

To contrast the need for reform, consider that former president G.W. Bush receives $200,000 a year and a two-star Army general with 25 years of service gets $86,000 a year. Reform is needed!

Our smallest pensions, however, go to the union employees at the bottom. I think of my friend, state employee and union member, Jennifer. Diagnosed with multiple sclerosis at 45 and now at 49, getting from her handicap parking spot to the state office is a difficult and slow process. She has no husband, no other source of income. She served two tours in the Illinois Guard (not long enough for benefits). Jennifer doesn’t want to ask the agency to accommodate her disability because it might disrupt office efficiencies and inconvenience others. She will leave the state with a pension of $35,000 and uncertain health coverage.

Is Illinois better served by cutting the $426,000 pension or Jennifer’s $35,000 pension? Does any retiring professor really deserve $1.2 million dollars every three years?

It’s true: pension reform is needed. There should only be one pension system, not five. A three percent raise every year is fat, and without a cap on payouts, pensions become gluttonous.

There is a need for change. There’s also a need to be methodical, to slow down and use the scalpel to trim the fat and protect those like Jennifer.

If you are tired of this kind of legislative shenanigans, consider signing the petition at Let’s get it done!  

Scott Stahlman of Springfield, a state employee, is founding organizer of Return of Illinois, a nonpartisan group that wants to curb legislative corruption. He has worked as a financial advisor, a support engineer at Microsoft and served as an officer in the U.S. Army. 

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