By Ted Dabrowski & Kristina Rasmussen -
The State Journal Register’s recent editorial critiquing the Illinois Policy Institute’s study, The crisis hits home: Illinois’ local pension problem, was disappointing on many fronts.
The city of Springfield performed dismally in the Institute’s statewide audit, which measured ten different metrics to arrive at a comprehensive picture of a city’s fiscal health. Springfield scored worst among the state’s 20 largest cities and ranked 112th of the 114 cities audited.
Rather than embrace a report that brings to light a crisis that is hurting the retirement security of city workers, not to mention city budgets and taxpayers, the SJ-R chose to dismiss the message because of its bias against the messenger.
While the SJ-R called the report “flawed,” it failed to point to any factual errors in the report. The Illinois Policy Institute takes seriously criticisms of its academic credibility, and has a “Guarantee of Quality Scholarship” attached to all its work. If there were any errors in our work, we would gladly correct the report. But the most the SJ-R could do was publish factual errors about the Institute in the editorial.
As for Springfield’s pension crisis, the most acknowledgement the SJ-R gave it was, “that we’re not saying it’s perfect.” People’s retirements are at stake; we would expect the hometown newspaper to care more.
In the editorial, the SJ-R said the Institute only succeeded “in muddying the water…” If the SJ-R believes the pensions are fine, we’re glad to sound the alarm that they’re not.
We are used to the push back that comes from those invested in the status quo. The same groups that are trying to dismiss us now did the same thing several years ago, when we sounded the alarm on the state of Illinois’s pension crisis, and city of Chicago’s pension woes.
Now everyone acknowledges the pension crisis at the city and state levels. We were right then and we are right now. This is not a political issue; this is a fiscal issue that has a huge impact on local workers, vital government services and taxpayers.
Here are the indisputable facts that prove Springfield is in crisis:
- Since 1999, taxpayer contributions toward local pensions costs have tripled to more than $27 million, three times faster than the rate of inflation.
- Taxpayers now contribute, through higher taxes and fees, four times more toward the local pension systems than city employees do.
- Springfield households are on the hook for double the amount in city worker pension debt than they were a decade ago. The city’s total shortfall now exceeds $325 million.
City services have also been cut and sales taxes increased to make ends meet.
Since 2008 library branches have been shuttered and personnel reduced by 36 percent. Sworn police officers have been cut by 9 percent. Public work positions have been reduced by 26 percent.
Only through higher sales taxes has funding for sidewalk, sewer and street repairs been restored.
Unfortunately, higher taxpayer contributions, reduced city services and increased fees have made city worker retirements no more secure today than they were a decade ago. In fact, they are worse off.
The evidence is clear. Local pension costs are having an increasingly negative impact on Springfield’s fiscal health and on the retirement security of city workers.
Nevertheless, the SJ-R’s editorial chose to call on the Institute’s conclusions “flawed” rather than acknowledge the true crisis at hand. The city claims the Institute did not properly account for pension payments related to the city’s Electric Light and Power Fund.
But addressing the city’s concerns does nothing to change the dynamics of Springfield’s pension predicament. Springfield’s audit score (out of 100) moves only to 22 from 18, leaving it tied with Evanston as the worst of Illinois’ 20 largest cities. Its ranking among the 114 cities audit only improves to 106th.
At a city council meeting we were invited to speak at, the city also took issue with our finding that the city spends every penny of general fund property tax on pensions. But even the city’s own 2012 Tax Levy and Rate Report confirms that more than 95 percent of the city’s general fund property tax revenues are being used to fund pensions. That’s up from 66 percent in 2006.
In addition, the SJ-R editorial criticized the Institute for not contacting Springfield leaders prior to the paper’s release. That accusation is false and the SJ-R should print a correction.
The Institute discussed Springfield’s burgeoning crisis with Ward 7 Alderman Joe McMenamin several times in the months before issuing its audit findings. In fact, it was Ald. McMenamin who invited the Institute to present its findings to the city council.
Ironically, at no time before it released its editorial did the SJ-R reach out to the Institute for comment.
The crisis affecting Springfield and other cities across Illinois needs an open and free discussion.
Newspapers should be the fabric of democracy, and the SJ-R should openly accept ideas and solutions – even if they conflict with their own.
Sadly, the SJ-R’s own political ideology is affecting its journalistic integrity. You can oppose our policy views, but great papers should not distort the truth in the interest of protecting the political establishment, as Sunday’s editorial did. Springfield readers deserve better.
Ted Dabrowski is Vice President of Policy at the Illinois Policy Institute
Kristina Rasmussen is Executive Vice President of the Illinois Policy Institute