Skillicorn: Driving a spike in teacher pensions

Illinois State Representative Allen Skillicorn (R-McHenry/Kane County) addresses area residents at a town hall meeting concerning the proposed Illinois graduated income tax Saturday, April 27, 2019 at the Lake in the Hills village hall. 
KKoontz – For Shaw Media
Illinois State Representative Allen Skillicorn (R-McHenry/Kane County) addresses area residents at a town hall meeting concerning the proposed Illinois graduated income tax Saturday, April 27, 2019 at the Lake in the Hills village hall. KKoontz – For Shaw Media

Reforms never come easy in Springfield, but last year, the General Assembly on a bipartisan vote, passed a provision that transferred the financial burden of spiking teacher salaries for pension calculation purposes from the state to local school districts.

Rest assured pension spiking could still occur (heaven forbid we go too far in our reform efforts). The new law limited the salary increases to 3 percent down from the 6 percent previously allowed. The new law also put the financial responsibility on the school district to pay any additional increase along with a penalty for doing so, which is the way it should be.

Why should the whole state be on the hook financially for decisions made at the local school district level? 

The pension spiking law was not going to turn Illinois around financially, but it was a reform and it was something we needed to do. As importantly, it was also a reform that had bipartisan support.

But now less than a year later, special interests are calling for the 6% spike to be restored and the tax and spenders in Springfield are all too happy to comply.

Using the teacher shortage data in Illinois, education activists are out in full force claiming that the 6% spike is necessary to “Save the Profession.” They claim that the pension uncertainty is driving an increase in unfilled teaching positions.

According to the Illinois State Board of Education, unfilled teacher positions have fluctuated from 1,143 in 2016 to 997 in 2017 and 1,407 in 2018. Attributing the spike in 2018 to lowering the pension spike 3% prior to its enactment seems dubious. 

While I am inclined to support merit increases based upon effort and excellence, a blanket 6%, let alone the current 3% spike merely to raise a retiree’s compensation is already egregious. I am certain taxpayers who bear the burden of saving for their own retirement along with paying for the public education retirees are overjoyed to know that a 3% spike for no reason at all just isn’t enough.

Additionally, where is the money to fund the restoration of the 6% spike going to come from? The current budget is almost $3.2 billion out of balance and Governor Pritzker is contemplating yet another pension payment holiday, because that worked out so well when Rod Blagojevich did it. It is time we learned from past mistakes. We are in this mess because our leaders have made bad decisions like shorting pension payments and adding sweeteners to entice employees to retire early. These bad decisions have created a massive $200 billion plus pension problem for our state.

Maybe if the Illinois Education Association, Illinois Teachers Federation, and the public education activists were out in force fighting for the consolidation of Illinois’ 865 school districts to reduce administrative costs or reforming the abuse of Tax Increment Financing (TIF) districts which diverts educational funding, I would be more supportive of reasonable merit driven increases.

What we need is innovation in how we deliver educational services with more choices, not fewer ones. For instance, perhaps we should enact policies to allow education money to follow students to ensure parents aren’t held captive to failing schools simply on the basis of their zip code. Instead, we are locked into an analog monolithic public education system designed in the industrial era, for our 21st century information based digital economy – “there’s an app for that.” 

If Gov. JB Pritzker signs SB 1952 into law, he will erase one of the few reforms we have been able to enact in Illinois and it will cost taxpayers dearly. It will be even more evidence that he and the Democrat majority in the House and the Senate remain committed to the failed policies that have crippled our state financially and they are not in the least bit serious about reform.

• Skillicorn is a Republican state representative from East Dundee.

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