Why Illinois Needs Wisconsin-Style Public Pension Reform

BySean O'leary

The tragic Newtown massacre brought calls for stricter gun control laws and more focus on mental health issues. Sadly, here in Illinois our hands are tied when it comes to fund and implement real mental health reform.

Victim to over excessive public spending, Illinois kicked these issues to the curb over the last several years. The liberal establishment's decisions to side with the politically powerful, ill-equipped the state to deal with tragic problems and to help the most vulnerable. 

In 2011, Illinois was number 1 in mental health cuts across the country. By 2012, the sate closed several key state mental health facilities. At the same time, the unfunded pension liabilities for state workers rose to over $95 billion.  

The liberal political establishment in Illinois made a choice; it decided to make no significant reforms to the pension system for fears of alienating powerful groups — such as teachers' unions.

And while many liberals would protest reforms to the public sector, not many would turn out to protest cuts to mental health services. 

However, many leftists try to solve the problem by just raising taxes on the rich. But this solution is not very feasible. In Illinois, with a $95 billion unfunded pension liability and a debt of with $271 billion, you could take every cent of the rich — and for that matter go a couple of tax brackets down — and still not solve the funding issue. So with massive taxation not the panacea, the only real solution is some form of fiscal austerity.

Contrast Wisconsin to Illinois; Wisconsin made reforms to its system for salary, pensions, and health care of government workers. In the last fiscal budget, Illinois cut Medicaid spending by $1.6 billion while Wisconsin increased Medicaid funding by $1.2 billion.

Conservative politicians in Wisconsin took the initiative to help those most vulnerable, even though they are not politically powerful and will probably not vote for them. Liberals in Illinois sided with politically powerful groups that are also their donors and help them get elected.

So if liberals believe that government should help the poor and most vulnerable, then how could they vote for policies that oppose these beliefs?  

If we want to help those in need deal with mental health, one of the potential causes of the Newtown shooting, we need the resources for these programs. Conservative reforms in Wisconsin made it possible to deal with these problems and propose reforms. Sadly, in Illinois, our hands are tied!