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Experts discuss fiscal health of state pension systems at forum Tuesday

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The fiscal health of the state employees pension systems — and pending legislation in the General Assembly that would change benefits — will be discussed by five university experts at a forum Tuesday.

The university’s Institute of Government and Public Affairs is sponsoring events on all three campuses to answer questions from concerned faculty and staff.

The UIC session begins at 2 p.m. in the UIC Forum.

As Illinois legislators wrangle with Gov. Pat Quinn over ways to resolve the state’s budget crisis, various bills proposing changes to state employee retirement systems appear to be either on hold or dead.

But that’s no reason for complacency, say experts following the issue.

“Something will be passed,” said Kappy Laing, executive director of the Office of Governmental Relations and the university’s chief lobbyist.

“We’re gathering intelligence and developing a framework for analysis to represent our view to the General Assembly,” she said.

About a dozen bills proposing changes to university pensions are in committee, waiting to be shaped into bills that are palatable to the governor and legislative leaders.

But until a compromise bill starts taking shape, Laing said the university is waiting and watching.

“There’s nothing hard yet. It’s like pushing against a pillow,” she said.

Laing said it’s possible Illinois lawmakers will pass a bill by the end of the current legislative session, around Memorial Day.

Forum: ‘Pensions and the State Fiscal Condition’

2 p.m. April 12, UIC Forum
RSVP at igpa.uillinois.edu/pensions

Panelists at Tuesday's forum include Laing; Darren Lubotsky, UIUC economics and employee and labor relations professor; J. Fred Geirtz, UIUC economics professor and board member of the State Universities Retirement System; Laurie Reynolds, UIUC professor of law; and David Merriman, UIC professor of public administration and economics and co-director of the institute’s fiscal futures project.

“We’ll discuss general economic principles of pension policy, constitutional limits on changes in pension policy, overview the changes in pension policy being discussed in states around the nation, and the university’s view of legislative changes being discussed in Illinois,” Merriman said.

Turnout could be standing-room-only.

“I have received questions from all quarters of the UIC community — active employees as well as retirees — about proposed legislation,” said Merrill Gassman, president of UIC United, the university’s chapter of the State Universities Annuitants Association.

“Anxiety levels appear to be high,” said Gassman, professor emeritus of biology. “There’s fear and outrage.”

In a campus message March 10, Chancellor Paula Allen-Meares expressed concerns over “possible changes to our pension benefits,” recognizing that current faculty and staff have served for years “on the understanding that these pension benefits were part of our compensation.”

“We continue to participate in discussions on this issue in Springfield and to use our good offices to the best advantage of our faculty and staff,” she wrote.

Laing said President Michael Hogan and Board of Trustees chair Christopher Kennedy are taking every available opportunity to tell state leaders about employee pension concerns, the related need for realistic state funding, and regulatory relief to ease the burdens created by new requirements for purchasing.

Gassman said he’s received numerous emails and calls from employees in the wake of recent pension proposals.

“People ask, ‘What should I do?’”

Gassman advises them to contact SURS to review their options.

“It’s your decision,” he says. “In the meantime, keep an eye on what’s happening in Springfield.”


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