University presidents offer solution to pension crisis

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Reporter - Kendall Downing

CARBONDALE, Ill. - Illinois lawmakers will meet Wednesday for a special legislative session aimed at hammering out a solution to the state's ballooning pension problem.

The current liability is about $100 billion. Because of that, the state's credit rating continues to take hits.

The plan backed by House Speaker Michael Madigan would require workers to pay more and increase the retirement age. Senate Speaker John Cullerton's plan would give workers some options, like choosing to give up health care to keep pension benefits. The two sides haven't come to a public agreement yet.

But now university presidents are speaking out with a potential solution of their own. They claim there's a lot for them at stake.

"I don't think you can kick it down the road any farther," said SIU President Glenn Poshard.

Poshard said lawmakers have to act now on pension reform because universities across the state are paying for it.

Reduced state funding means there's less money to operate, and a shaky pension system makes hiring qualified faculty difficult.

"We can't do that if we're asking people to come into the state system that's bankrupt with no possibility down the road of their ever realizing the possibility of a pension we're promising up front," he said.

State university retiree pensions make up about 25% of the total debt.

A plan proposed by Poshard and other university presidents offers a possible solution.

In it, those universities offer to pay for pension contributions slowly over a 12 year period. They also ask employees to pay two percent more and tie cost of living adjustments to the inflation rate.

But there's a catch - the state can't continue to cut their funding.

"That would be a great advantage to the universities because of recruitment and being able to bring people in," said Bruce Appleby, with the SIU Annuitants Assocation.

Appleby said most university employees back the new plan proposed by Poshard and others. It's one the president believes could reach across the aisle as a solution for the whole crisis.

"It may act as a model for other systems in the state," he said.

Poshard will be traveling to Springfield and testifying before a committee on the pension proposal Tuesday, ahead of Wednesday's special session.

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