Pick up any newspaper or watch any television news, and you're bound to learn retirement benefits are becoming the latest lethal line in the sand.

It was the issue in the recent UAW Local 974 election. Caterpillar, like every other major employer in the country, is constantly tweaking its health care plan for retirees and employees. Retirement benefits now seem to be an almost daily focus of stories over the big airwaves. George Will's recent syndicated column on the plight of General Motors-there's more health care cost than steel cost in each car-will send shivers down your spine.

Across the country, employers large and small are finding benefits to be a virtual "third rail" of doing business. Employees at one local business held an informational picket last month, and when interviewed on television, one picketer seemed almost apologetic.

There's one group of employees, however, that I doubt you'll ever see protesting their employer's benefit package. That would be state employees.

Talk about shivers down your spine. Some, including almost half of the retired legislators, make more in retirement than they did working. Cost of living raises-and how many private sector retirees even know what those are-surpass the actual cost of living. Teachers get large raises in the last years of working so their retirement pay will be higher. Early retirement schemes-the British term is so appropriate here-start the coupon-clipping even earlier for some…and create openings for new folks to join the stream.

The governor has some thoughts on the subject that deserve full hearing by the General Assembly-and taxpayers. Among other things, he'd limit future benefits, up the retirement age, and make school districts pay for the increased pension costs they cause by providing unreasonable end-of-career pay raises.

Reform might be made tougher because of a provision in the constitution that prohibits reducing the retirement benefits of current employees. Imagine how well a constitutional amendment to change that would fly with the populace.

Those are some long-term solutions. Short term, the situation is desperate. Illinois is last (or just ahead of West Virginia, depending who you talk to) in funding public pensions. As budget director John Filan put it: "This is a structural problem with the state, and if we don't do something about it, it will get worse every year. It will eat up money for education and health care until we have no more for anything but pensions."

It would be good if the General Assembly-who, surprise, surprise, has the most generous plan of them all-would put a freeze on any future benefit increases until the shortfall is made up and then ensure funding is available before any additional increases are allowed.

More than anything else, it would behoove us all if the state abandoned the "how much can we get" philosophy to one of "how are others doing it."

Those others, of course, are those in the business community: the business community that has to control costs, that has to be careful not to commit more than it has, and that has to do business in one of the least desirable states in which to do so. IBI