In my service as a state representative in Illinois, there will be times when my judgment, decisions, and actions merit an explanation. Recently, the Illinois House and Senate narrowly passed a pension reform bill, with the hope of filling the current $100billion liability in state-funded pension plans. Those plans include those for teachers, police, nurses, child protective workers, state university employees, as well as other retired and current state workers.
This pension system desperately needs to be funded to protect the investments made by current and future retirees. We should recognize the hard work of my colleagues in the General Assembly. And to all of the stakeholders for dealing with the pension issue, showing that the General Assembly can come together to work on tough issues. The fact that this new law narrowly passed the General Assembly — and immediately faces legal challenges — reflects just how difficult this decision was. Even though this new law seems to be "the fix," there is no one single bill that would completely reform the pension systems.
I understand the significance of our pension and financial crisis. That's why I supported a constitutional change to the state's pension system 2010, and helped pass a two-tier pension system for state employees. Also in 2010, I introduced and passed legislation to create a State Financial Crisis Task Force within the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity. This task force works with talented citizen-leaders to identify ways to cut costs and obtain more revenue for the state. In 2013, I introduced legislation the Illinois Small Business and Workforce Development Task Force Act, which was passed and became law.
Christopher Kennedy, chairman of the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois, chairs that task force, which will help identify issues of importance to small businesses. I believe we need to do more to grow our state's economy, which will generate revenue so the state will be able to make the pension payments that are needed.
Furthermore, we need to examine how our state money is spent. What cuts can be made? In the 2013 budget, more than $125 million is allocated to juvenile justice, and almost $1.2 billion to the Department of Corrections. What can we do as a society to decrease the numbers of youth and adults who are so expensively incarcerated? I have worked hard since I arrived in the General Assembly in 2007 to prevent persons from ever being involved with the criminal justice system. I have also worked hard to increase opportunities for ex-offenders to find jobs and contribute to our society, preventing their return to prison.
In listening to my constituents so I can best represent them, I heard a strong message about the difficulties of struggling families trying to make ends meet on one retirement income and the unfairness of the current pension plan. I received information through an informal poll of more than 500 people initiated by our office, as well as through hundreds of emails and phone calls we received — the overwhelming response was against the current pension plan.
Employees and retirees paid into a system that, in essence, was used as a revenue source for projects for the rest of us. They did nothing wrong, it is not fair. I believe it may be against Illinois' constitution to decrease the benefits that they need and were relying on. Many might think that the cost of living adjustment of 3 percent per year is too much. But those who receive social security benefits have also received, on average, a cost of living increase in their benefits of 2.8 percent annually over the last 30 years. These state employees are generally not eligible for social security benefits, but must rely on their state pension.
As chairman of the Illinois House Restorative Justice Committee and a believer of justice and fairness for everyone, I could not in good faith support this current pension reform bill. It was unjust and would diminish the quality of life for too many Illinois families.
To fund the pensions, we must do everything we can in Springfield to increase revenue for the state by closing corporate tax loopholes, ending corporate welfare, creating a fair taxing system, and ending wasteful spending on an unfair criminal justice system.
I will work with Chris Kennedy and the task force to create legislation for growing revenue and strengthening businesses in Illinois. I will continue to work with members of the General Assembly to fairly fund the state's priorities.
LaShawn Ford represents Illinois' 8th legislative district, which includes Austin.
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