I must admit that I didn’t read every word published during George Ryan’s trial. It wasn’t all that easy to follow…and I found the entire situation depressing.

When the smoke cleared, we learned the governor’s friends pocketed some $4.77 million of taxpayer money just because they were friends of George. And what did the governor get? Vacations, gifts—apparently anything he wanted. Anything, that is, except money. I don’t recall any accusation that Ryan pocketed any money from his dealings. In fact, much of the pre-trial tripe told us how Ryan was living the common-man life, in a common-man house, etc.

So, we’re to infer that he didn’t line his own pockets—with cash. As long as that didn’t happen, well, that’s just the way government business is done. But business just doesn’t operate that way. Which leads us to that age-old question, “Why can’t the government run like a business?”
Of course, we’ve all thought or even muttered that phrase for years. But I don’t remember it ever hitting the raw nerve it does every time I see some mention of public pensions. It’s an out-of-control system across the country, and it’s next to impossible to read any national story on the subject that doesn’t mention Illinois as disaster’s poster-child.

Too many of the stories focus on how the state isn’t funding its pension requirements. While that’s true—and beyond excuse—we need more discussion on the benefits those contributions must fund and how those benefits compare to private plans.

How many of us can retire as early as 55 with 80 percent of our salary and 3 percent increases every year? How many of us can count on healthy pay raises toward the end of our careers that will boost our retirement?

The current governor has touted reforms that address those issues, and they would give us a good start. But I’d like to see talk of pension reform in Illinois that goes beyond rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, beyond the funding shortfall or patchwork benefit revisions.

We’d all be better served if discussion switched to building a new foundation. Let’s at least open discussion on such taboo topics as:
• A 401(k)-type system—Private companies (such as IBM, Motorola, and Caterpillar) have dropped retirement plans and now use a 401(k) system.
• Eliminating the separate public pension plans—Public employees, like the rest of us, can be part of the Social Security system.
• Moving the entire issue of public employee benefits higher on the radar screen. We long ago banned elected officials from raising their own salaries during their term. Let’s implement that requirement for any benefit change they want for themselves or any public employee. Let’s have more disclosure on the benefits a retiring legislator, school administrator, teacher, fireman, or street worker will receive. You’ll find them beyond your wildest dreams.

And once we’ve brought public pensions into the reality we all must live in, we then can look at health care benefits. IBI