State considers retirement plans

By Brian Slupski

While other state employees reap the benefits of a lucrative early retirement plan, public university employees are still left out in the cold.

There are two main early retirement plans in Illinois, the “five plus five” plan and the “2.2” plan.

The five plus five plan has already been given to state employees, but not to state employees in higher education.

Under five plus five, university employees aged 50 and over would be given five years of age in the retirement system and allowed to purchase five years of service, bringing them closer to the age they are eligible to retire.

In other words, an employee who is 50 and has worked for the state 25 years would be considered 55 in the eyes of the state. The employee could then “buy” five years of service giving the employee 30 years of service.

Presently state employees can “buy” years of service, but under five plus five, the rate of purchasing those years would be reduced.

If five plus five were offered to higher education, about 15,000 employees would be eligible, including many faculty and administrators.

Ross Hodel, deputy director of the Illinois Board of Higher Education said, “Five plus five is being considered for elementary and secondary teachers.

“If it is passed for them, I have a feeling it might be considered for higher education,” Hodel said.

Hodel said one reason the plan was offered to other state employees and not higher education was to avoid layoffs.

Hodel said higher education didn’t suffer as severe a budget cut as other areas of state government, and therefore wasn’t facing a major problem in terms of layoffs.

Hodel added that five plus five has been criticized for various reasons including the possibility that mass retirement in higher education would downgrade the delivery of education.

However, with funding for higher education at a standstill, many officials including NIU President John La Tourette have advocated implementing five plus five because it gives greater flexibility when planning budgets.

Dennis Spice, executive director of the State University Retirement System (SURS), has criticized five plus five because it would increase SURS debt by about $240 million.

Spice said SURS debt is presently $3.4 billion due to underfunding by the state.

Spice said his funding has not increased as the number of retirees he has to pay benefits to has increased.

Spice said he is not expecting a new early retirement package to solve his funding problems, but he does expect the package to be paid for.

“A retirement package is like buying a car. Now when you buy a

car, do you pay for that car through payments over a relatively short period of time?” Spice said.

“Or do you buy the car, drive it for a while and then leave the bills for your children?” he said.

Spice said retirement benefits are guaranteed by state law and if they are not paid for now, they will be paid for later.

An alternative plan being considered is the 2.2 plan. The 2.2 would change how benefits for retiring employees are calculated.

Presently, retirement benefits for state employees are calculated by using the average of the employees’ four highest salary years, multiplied by a percentage rate.

After 10 years of service, the rate is 1.67 percent. In other words, an employee would receive 16.7 percent of their average salary for their four highest salary years after they retired.

The rates increase per 10 years of service, so an employee retiring with 30 years of service has a rate of 2.1 percent.

The 2.2 would create a flat rate of 2.2 percent opposed to the present graduated scale. Spice said the 2.2 would provide a retirement enhancement for all higher education employees, not just those 50-and-over.

“It’s a good benefit, but it needs to be fully-funded,” Spice said.

However, Spice said to pay for 2.2 he would need $292 million from the 12 public universities up-front and 1.25 percent of their payroll, now and forever.

He said if the universities couldn’t come up with the $292 million, he would need 1.9 percent of their payroll now and forever.

As one might expect, Spice said the universities have not reacted positively to his funding proposal for the 2.2 plan.

Phil Adams, legislative liaison for the Board of Regents, said the Regents as an organization have not and probably will not support either proposal.

“It’s hard for an organization like the Regents to take a position on issues like this because there is so much room for negotiation. It’s not like its 2.2, five plus five or nothing,” Adams said.

Adams said while he is not sure if action will be taken on either proposal, he is quite sure they won’t be fully funded.

“I don’t remember any benefits package ever being fully funded, and I don’t think for a minute that one will be this time,” Adams said.