Pension concerns shown at legislator, faculty forum

By KeAndre Worthy

About 400 faculty and staff, active and retired, gathered Wednesday in the Holmes Student Center to discuss pension reform with state legislators.

Representatives Tom Demmer and Bob Pritchard and Senator Dave Syverson attended to get the peoples’ perspectives and update them on reform. Illinois has $100 billion in unfunded pension liability.

“The pension reform for NIU has three perspectives,” said Steven Cunningham, vice president of Administration. “[The] first is to protect retirement security…. Second, the integrity of our institution. Third, how the budget changes will affect the money given to higher education, which affects NIU’s budget.”

Cunningham said NIU has had 42 percent turnover in four years, double the normal level for a university. Pension woes may be contributing to the faculty retention issues.

Cunningham said NIU is looking for a “package deal” that stabilizes the systems’ fiscal situation while retaining retiree benefits.

Demmer said the main concern for representatives is preventing a “Band-Aid fix” that would bring the problem back in a few years, which he said happened with pension reform in the past.

“How states operate is that on an annual basis states push off some of their bills from obligations to next year to build their budget,” Demmer said. “What happened with the pension is we stopped paying it next year. Instead, it just kept building on us. Essentially, [the state would] open up a new credit card to pay off the old credit card every year.”

Cunningham said of the about 400 people who attended the meeting, one-third were retirees. They were invited to ask questions and share their thoughts with the legislators.

During the forum, Billie Thomas, retired early childhood education professor, told legislators benefits promised to him in his contract had been cut.

“When hearing media or representatives talk about the pension issues, yes, I think they are blaming retirees,” Thomas said.

Demmer said whatever happens to the pensions of faculty and staff happens to legislators’ pensions and, in a larger perspective, all state workers’ pensions.

“Pension reform has strong opinions on both sides,” Demmer said. “Legislators will pass something that is constitutional, that addresses all the state’s financial obligations, but no matter what happens I feel this issue will end up and be settled in court.”