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VIDEO: Union leaders pull down millions in public pensions
4 years ago By Andrew Thomason, Illinois Statehouse News
Illinois taxpayers are on the hook to make sure union officials’ six-figure pensions keep flowing for years to come
SPRINGFIELD — Illinois taxpayers are on the hook to make sure union officials’ six-figure pensions keep flowing for years to come.
Former employees of the National Education Association, or NEA, Illinois Education Association, or IEA, Illinois Federation of Teachers, or IFT, and Illinois Association of School Boards, or IASB, drawing pensions have collected more than $47 million from the Illinois Teachers' Retirement System, or TRS, to date.
“The union leaders who are not government workers are draining millions of dollars from the hard working rank-and-file public employee's pension system each year. This is flat out unacceptable for taxpayers and for public employees," said Adam Andrzejewski, who unsuccessfully sought the Republican nomination for governor and now runs his own group, For the Good of Illinois, a nonprofit that calls for "limited, accountable and transparent government."
How many millions of dollars taxpayers are responsible for is an open question. Illinois Statehouse News has filed a public information request and is waiting on additional data from TRS to help arrive at that answer.
Monthly checks to former union leaders and IASB employees come from a pension system carrying an unfunded liability — how much money a pension system falls short of to pay current and future pensions — of $39.8 billion, or about 51 percent.
Between the current contribution structure for TRS beneficiaries, the benefits guaranteed to retirees, and an unrealistic expectation on how much investments will earn, TRS will be underfunded constantly, said Colin Hitt, senior director of governmental affairs for the Illinois Policy Institute, a free-market think tank.
Employees of statewide teachers’ unions and the IASB, nonprofit that helps school boards with professional development, pay into and collect a public pension as long as they hold a teaching certificate because of a decades-old state law.
“It’s beyond disrespectful to rank-and-file teachers that their dues went to pay these people who are taking this kind of money out of an underfunded pensions system,” state Sen. Matt Murphy, R-Palatine, said.
Sixty-six retirees who once worked in public education and then jumped to work for the NEA, IEA, IFT or IASB are receiving a TRS pension — and another 53 employees in the queue for a public pension.
Additionally, unlike everyone else in TRS whose salary is set by a school board or other elected officials, there is no public oversight of what union leaders and IASB employees are paid, which ultimately determines how high their pension will be.
Funding for NEA, IEA, IFT and IASB employee pensions is set up differently than the average TRS participant. Normally, an employee will contribute about 9.4 percent of their paycheck to TRS, the state will match that contribution and the employee’s school district will kick in about half a percent.
NEA, IEA, IFT and IASB employees enrolled in TRS also contribute 9.4 percent of their paychecks, but instead of the state, their employer makes the matching contribution, a point Charles McBarron, spokesman for the IEA, was quick to make.
“If I was looking at the pension system, I’d be a lot more upset about the diversion of state money, the required contributions, that caused the underfunding of the pension,” McBarron said.
And that's the rub.
Public pensions were designed to invest employee and employer contributions and generate enough money to cover pensions. But when those investments fall short of expectations, as they have in the recent past, or when the General Assembly skips its payment to the system, it’s the taxpayers who are left to cover the difference.
Murphy is working on legislation that would kick employees of statewide teachers’ unions and IASB out of TRS. Former employees collecting a pension wouldn’t see their benefits diminished, and current employees would be allowed to keep what they’ve paid into TRS so far, said Murphy.
Dave Comerford, spokesman for IFT, said the union is reviewing Murphy’s legislation.
Beneficiaries earning a public pension while working for a union or IASB compose a small percentage of total participants in TRS, Dave Urbanek, spokesman for TRS, said
“We’re talking a couple hundred people. And our total membership is upwards of 378,000,” Urbanek said.
Murphy said removing these people from TRS won’t make much of a dent in the unfunded liability, but that’s not what his legislation is about.
"These examples just fuel the cynicism that's out there that, frankly, makes it harder to govern," Murphy said.
Despite being a small percentage of those participating in TRS, retirees who once worked for the NEA, IEA, IFT or IASB are drawing some of that system’s largest pensions.
On average, former NEA, IEA, IFT and IASB employees in TRS draw annual pensions of about $100,000; more than double the $43,000 annual pension the typical TRS annuitant collects.
For a private-sector employee to earn a guaranteed yearly pension of $100,000, they would have to invest about $40,000 in an annuity every year during a 40-year career, according to Fidelity Investments, a national financial advising firm.
For NEA, IEA, IFT and IASB retirees to earn their guaranteed yearly pension of $100,000, they and their employers only needed to contribute about $25,000 for four years. An employee needs to work for five years to be vested in TRS. Pensions for most TRS beneficiaries are calculated on an employee’s highest salary during his last decade of service. That salary must be earned for four consecutive years.
Reginald Weaver, former president of the NEA, stands out from the rest of the union and IASB retirees.
Weaver has been collecting more than $20,000 a month from TRS since September 2008, making the second-highest monthly pension in TRS. To date, Weaver has collected almost $750,000 from his public pension, collecting an annual pension of almost $250,000 a year.
Then there is Kenneth Drum. TRS pays Drum more than $160,000 a year, despite Drum only working for 12 years as a teacher.
Drum’s large pension comes not from his time in the classroom, but rather because of a 20-year career at IFT. Drum has collected more than $2 million from TRS since retiring in 1994, and is one of 21 former NEA, IEA, IFT or IASB employees who has collected more than $1 million from the TRS since retiring.
Comerford said he couldn’t speak for individuals as to why they didn’t take an IFT pension when they went to work for the union instead of continuing paying into a public system.
“I would guess that two decades of service credit in TRS from teaching is a factor,” Comeford said.
Kent Redfield, a political scientist at University of Illinois at Springfield, said the past General Assemblies and governors slowly have reformed a state pension framework that heavily favored employee.
“Back in the 70s, you’d write pension bills that would apply to people with more than 10 but less than 12 years with the Chicago Park District that also had more than three but less than five years with the Chicago metropolitan sanitary district and that had more than 10 but less than 12 years with the city of Chicago … and you’d be happening to writing pension bills for individuals,” Redfield said.
Recent changes of raising the age of retirement and setting a limit on how high a salary one can use to calculate one’s pension were signed into law. However, the vast majority of people participating in the state’s pension systems are not affected by this law, because it applies only to those hired after Jan. 1, 2011.