A big, bold plan to save the state’s debt-strapped public pension funds is being floated in Springfield. But don’t get your hopes up.
It’s not the cure to Illinois’ festering financial crisis.
An influential state employee advocacy group, the State Universities Annuitants Association, is urging Illinois to issue $107 billion in bonds to pay off shortfalls in Illinois' five leading pension funds.
Yep, that’s a whopping $107 billion — backed by taxpayers who will be on the hook, especially if the deal goes bad. And the odds of that occurring look pretty good.
“It’s a big gamble,” says Howard Cure, director of municipal bond credit research for Evercore Wealth Management in New York.
While full details are expected to be unveiled Tuesday before a state panel, bond and public finance experts already are highly skeptical. They’re concerned it will add to Illinois’ growing pension burdens — now estimated at $130 billion in unfunded liabilities — and further hinder the state’s sorry financial health.
Let’s start with the bond market.
At $107 billion in 27-year fixed-rate bonds, it'd be the largest amount of debt the state ever sought from investors. Bond experts wonder if Illinois — with its record of political dysfunction, inability to pay its bills in a timely way and $25 billion in general obligation debt — will attract enough hungry investors.
One way to lure wary backers is to spice up the bonds and sell them at above-market interest rates. Such a premium would likely attract risk-taking investors, probably from overseas funds, or deep-pocketed individuals hoping to make a killing.
But higher rates are tougher to pay off and investors’ bond payments must be paid on time, says Cure. Missing a debt payment means riling angry bondholders, who could take legal actions to recoup their investments, he adds.
On top of the gargantuan amount, the bond is limited to pensions and not linked to any comprehensive financial plan for improving state finances, asserts Laurence Msall, president of the Civic Federation — a nonpartisan government research group.
Despite these somber concerns, no one should be beating up on the State Universities Annuitants Association, which represents more than 200,000 current and retired employees, for leading this charge.
The group believes many initial concerns will be addressed when it reveals details of the plan to the General Assembly committee exploring public pension matters. It will argue that its refinancing proposal will lop $103 billion off state pension costs through 2045 while increasing the pensions’ funding levels to 90 percent.
In the coming weeks, the $107 billion initiative will be discussed by finance experts, labor and taxpayer advocates, stresses Rep. Robert Martwick, the Chicago Democrat who heads the House pension committee.
Of course, when it comes to Illinois’ public pension crisis, there’s no shortage of issues to chew over.
Government leaders have been doing that for way too many years with few results, mainly because of state underfunding of pensions, feisty union opposition and a provision in the state constitution that prohibits any structural changes to the funds or benefits.
It’s a nasty trick bag because, in the meantime, the amount of public pension liabilities keeps stacking up and strapped taxpayers are increasingly responsible for paying more.
It’s a mess.
But this big, bold but flawed bond plan isn’t the solution to the public pension crisis.
We can’t be that desperate.