Everyone knows that now is the time.

Even the most junior, backbench legislator knows the biggest challenge confronting the Illinois General Assembly is the mounting debt from the state’s unfunded public employee pension liabilities.

As it stands, Illinois taxpayers face growing obligations in excess of $85 billion to pay for the retirement benefits of our current and former public servants. It is the largest unfunded pension liability of any state in the nation.

This issue is not exclusively the concern of public employees and those retired from government jobs. Every resident and voter should understand they are personally affected by how our elected officials confront this enormous, snarling bear at our door.

The state’s pension costs, which have escalated rapidly in recent years, now exceed $6 billion annually. These costs are significant enough to begin claiming dollars that in earlier years would have been directed toward vital areas like education, public safety and human services.

Failure to address the pension debt is also the primary reason the bond rating agencies continue to diminish Illinois’ credit standing. While issuing its most recent downgrade, Standard & Poor’s warned that buyers of Illinois bonds should be aware of a “negative outlook.” When our state’s credit rating suffers, Illinois taxpayers are forced to pay higher interest rates instead of paying for new roads or schools. The downgrades are likely to continue until our elected leaders wrestle this bear.

To their credit, Gov. Pat Quinn and the General Assembly have not totally ignored the situation. They have delivered recent budgets that fully fund current-year pension commitments, created a two-tiered pension system that established separate provisions for newly hired state employees and took steps to redress some of the most egregious manipulations of the system. In recent weeks, Gov. Quinn has repeatedly emphasized the urgency, magnitude and immediacy of the problem before us.

Yet there has been no real consensus on how to resolve the problem. No matter how ugly the solution may prove to be, our state’s unfunded public employee pensions must be addressed now. Given the increasingly unsustainable nature of the current situation and the millions of dollars that delay is costing taxpayers, the time for incremental solutions has long passed.

While consensus has not been reached, we do know the key components of the likely fix:

Even with such changes, it will take decades to restore the fiscal solvency of the funds.

Opponents to altering the pension laws take solace in the provisions of the Illinois Constitution that suggest pension benefits cannot be diminished. Because the 1970 constitution speaks to the subject, it is a forgone conclusion that any legislation changing the public employee pension laws will ultimately find its way to the Illinois Supreme Court.

Any solution will likely be unpopular with the thousands of public employees, retirees, union members, and their friends and families who are angered by the situation because they made their contributions to the retirement system over the years. The funding gap is not their fault, even as their unions were both advocates for increased benefits and complicit observers of underpayments. However, without drastic changes, there is a strong likelihood the public employee retirement systems will ultimately fail them.

If the governor and members of the General Assembly do not find a satisfactory combination of changes to fix the pension crisis and put the state on a path to economic recovery, they will have failed its citizens and taxpayers to a far greater extent than those who preceded them, for every one of them knows that now is the time. This reform must be delivered on their watch. iBi