Coupling a boatload of optimism with a dire warning, Mayor Lori Lightfoot told investors from around the country that Chicago is well positioned to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic and is a good place for them to allocate their cash.
But her remarks May 6 were far different on the subject of underfunded city pension funds, a problem that has bedeviled mayors for the past two decades.
Though workers deserve what they’ve been promised, she said, “that promise will not be met” unless Springfield lawmakers come to the table with financial aid or other reforms.
Lightfoot did not use the word “default.” But some financial experts have warned that some of the city’s four pension funds, particularly those covering firefighters and police, may have trouble paying promised benefits within a few years if they don’t get help.
Chicago households are on the hook for a combined $63,000 in Chicago-only debt, based on Moody’s calculations. It’s why the city and the school district have been junk rated for years.
Pritzker’s COLA increase runs against what most of Illinois’ political elite already know – COLA cuts are necessary and inevitable at all levels of government. As Greg Hinz said in his review of Wirepoints’ Pension Solutions, “…that juicy perk over time has amounted to megabillions that state government just doesn’t have.”
The COLA hike will cause more financial headaches for Chicago. Mayor Lori Lightfoot says the COLA increase will cost the city an additional $18 to $30 million a year in pension costs. In all, the perk will force taxpayers to pay an additional $850 million over time.
And that’s the context of that big $932 million tax hike on business Gov. J.B. Pritzker is pushing as part of his proposed 2022 budget.
Pritzker calls the proposal “closing corporate loopholes.” Arguably that’s true, at least in the sense that any tax break I don’t receive must be someone else’s undeserved loophole. But the proposal comes at the very time when population and jobs have begun to drop not only statewide but in the metropolitan area, and at a time when the state refuses to confront its ever-rising pension debt. Not to mention Chicago’s murder and car-jacking wave. Or what Cook County Assessor Fritz Kaegi is up to.
In fairness to Pritzker, Illinois is not the only state to be moving its tax structure in his proposed direction, at least in part. For instance, according to the Tax Foundation, a Washington research group that’s fairly conservative but also frequently cited in economic circles, only 16 states grant the full accelerated depreciation that’s now in federal tax code. Pritzker’s proposed change there is worth $214 million a year.
I’m not saying solving Illinois’ pension mess will be easy. It won’t. But dead silence surely won’t solve it. Voters hired Pritzker to fix problems. On this huge problem, he’s been a sad failure.
Which leads to pension story No. 2: That’s the utter turmoil that seems to have overtaken one of the larger public retirement systems in the state, the $11 billion Chicago Teachers’ Pension Fund, which receives a nice chunk of Chicago homeowners’ property tax payments every six months.
When I last looked at the fund in October, its executive director and other key officials had just resigned, one commissioner had been censured by other board members, and board President Jeffery Blackwell was publicly complaining of an agency “culture of intimidation, intentional misinformation, discrimination, slander, misogyny, fear-mongering, blatant racism, sexism and retaliatory actions.” But interim Executive Director Mary Cavallaro said in a statement there was no reason to worry, and that “the fund is committed to ensuring financial stability, operational efficiencies and seamless service to members.”
Well, guess who now has resigned—with a blast? That would be Cavallaro. “I can no longer tolerate the chaos and toxicity of the boardroom, along with the vile disrespect and insults directed toward me, the leadership team and the hard-working staff of the fund by certain misinformed trustees,” she said in a letter to the board. “I have grave concerns about the ability of fund operations to sustain the continued loss of key staff members because of bad trustee behavior and poor board governance.”