I spent some time at my Uncle Kenny’s house in Ashkum last weekend. We went to the Iroquois County Fair, which is like taking a step back in time.
The fair hasn’t changed much at all since I was a kid. They still don’t allow alcohol on the clean grounds where kids safely run free.
I was at that fair every day back when I was growing up, often accompanied by my Uncle Kenny.
I’m the oldest of five sons, so Kenny was like my big brother growing up. It was a nostalgic weekend, and it felt like old times.
Kenny worked hard all of his life, putting in more overtime hours as a state groundskeeper during blizzards and mowing season than I could count, and he finally retired after then-Gov. George Ryan signed early retirement legislation shortly before leaving office.
I insisted that Kenny take the early out because I knew incoming Gov. Rod Blagojevich was a vindictive little jerk. I told Kenny I had a strong feeling that things were going to get rough with this guy and if Rod ever found out that I had a state employee relative, then either Kenny would be in a world of hurt or I’d be put in a very difficult spot, or both.
Kenny mows lawns to supplement his modest state pension. He’s not one of the few greedheads you read about all the time. Kenny followed the rules, he didn’t game them. You’d think by reading some of the media coverage that all public employee retirees have huge incomes and laugh at the taxpayers every time a bloated pension check arrives in their gold-plated mailboxes.
Kenny doesn’t charge much for his side jobs, but he may have to raise his rates soon.
We as a state have a problem. A big problem. For at least 60 years, Illinois has never consistently made its full payments to the pension systems and kept promising to pay out more benefits than it could afford.
A payment plan approved in the 1990s kicked the solution down the road, but the resulting payments ended up being so high that Gov. Blagojevich and the General Assembly decided not to make them. So, now we’re even deeper in the hole, and last year’s $7 billion income tax increase couldn’t solve the problem.
If the current pension reform package that’s on the table becomes law, my Uncle Kenny will have to make some difficult choices about whether to give up his compounded cost of living increases every year or his state subsidized health insurance. He’ll survive, but it’ll hurt.
Nothing stays the same, I suppose. I used to bring a steer to the fair every year and competed against dozens of fellow 4-H members. But the competition eventually got out of hand. Parents were spending small fortunes to gain even a slight advantage for their kids’ animals. This year, only a few steers were shown. Times are just too tough to be spending that much cash.
But we as a state can’t just stop making pension payments because the costs are too high and times are too difficult. Another way has to be found.
The taxpayers have done their part to address the pension deficit with that income tax increase, which is about equal to a week’s pay every year. The retirees (who pay no state income taxes on their pensions) and the active employees are going to have to pitch in to save the system.
This situation truly sucks. People like my uncle shouldn’t have to be targeted. But so far, I’ve seen no other way to do it.