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Moody’s: Supreme Court ruling “credit negative” for Illinois, local governments

Friday, Jul 11, 2014

* From Moody’s “Weekly Credit Outlook for Public Finance”

On July 3, the Illinois Supreme Court found that state constitutional protections for pensions apply to retiree health care subsidies that were cut by the State of Illinois (A3 negative). The decision reversed a lower court’s March 2013 decision and remanded the case to the lower court for further proceedings. The court’s decision is credit negative for Illinois and local governments such as the City of Chicago (Baa1 negative).

The majority of the justices expressed views that run counter to the rationale used in recent pension reform legislation for certain city and state plans. We therefore perceive increased risk that the Illinois Supreme Court will rule the pension reform legislation unconstitutional, which would jeopardize $32.7 billion of pension liability reduction.

The ruling shows that most of the justices have an expansive view of how the pension clause (Article 13, Section 51) should apply to pensioners. The majority opinion states that, “Where there is any question as to legislative intent and the clarity of the language of a pension statute, it must be liberally construed in favor of the rights of the pensioner.” This and other sections of the ruling signal how the court could side with pensioners when it eventually addresses the constitutionality of recent state pension reforms, which have already been challenged, as well as Chicago’s pension reforms, which we expect will be challenged.

The court still may be persuaded by arguments outside the scope of the current ruling, such as the idea that extreme pension funding pressure prevents the state or a local government from providing for public health and safety, a responsibility higher than adhering to pension promises. The ultimate outcome on the state’s pension reforms will remain uncertain until the court rules on their legality directly. In December 2013, the state passed sweeping legislation to address the severe underfunding of its pension systems. The legislation reduced cost-of-living adjustments (COLAs) for employees and retirees in four of the five state pension systems. The legislation also increased state contribution requirements and reduced employee contribution rates. The state’s actuaries estimated that these and other changes reduced accrued liabilities as reported by the three largest pension systems by approximately $21 billion as of June 30, reducing Moody’s adjusted net pension liabilities (ANPLs) for the three largest systems — the Teachers’ Retirement System (TRS), State Employees’ Retirement System (SERS) and State Universities Retirement System (SURS) — by a combined $32.7 billion, or 17%.

In May, a lower court judge barred the state from implementing its reforms until lawsuits challenging the changes were resolved. The matter will almost certainly be appealed to the state Supreme Court, no matter the outcome in the lower court.

No surprise there.

- Posted by Rich Miller        


49 Comments
  1. - Norseman - Friday, Jul 11, 14 @ 12:52 pm:

    Ty, you’re not helping!


  2. - PublicServant - Friday, Jul 11, 14 @ 1:00 pm:

    ===The court still may be persuaded by arguments outside the scope of the current ruling, such as the idea that extreme pension funding pressure prevents the state or a local government from providing for public health and safety, a responsibility higher than adhering to pension promises.===

    The state can provide for pension debt repayment, public health and safety easily. They know how. The crisis is that they just don’t want to do it.


  3. - A guy... - Friday, Jul 11, 14 @ 1:00 pm:

    Maybe not a surprise, but a reality check none the less.


  4. - Six Degrees of Separation - Friday, Jul 11, 14 @ 1:05 pm:

    The larger reality check is if the ISC rules the way 99.9% of knowledgeable people think they will, the only constitutional solutions will likely further damage the state’s credit rating even as the ship is being slowly righted.


  5. - VanillaMan - Friday, Jul 11, 14 @ 1:11 pm:

    We expected this.
    What was plan B?


  6. - PublicServant - Friday, Jul 11, 14 @ 1:14 pm:

    ===the only constitutional solutions will likely further damage the state’s credit rating even as the ship is being slowly righted.===

    Can you elaborate on what the solutions are that you think would likely damage the state’s credit rating?


  7. - RNUG - Friday, Jul 11, 14 @ 1:16 pm:

    Moody’s should have already known and factored all that into their ratings. Guess they are starting to get worried that the attempted illegal theft of the pensions won’t fly here.

    But I guess we have to remember those are the same people who have missed most of the financial train wrecks the last 10 years or so.

    Based on actions taken in other states and the credit rating agency’s responses, the ONLY thing that is going to make them happy is a PERMANENT tax increase.


  8. - Jimbo - Friday, Jul 11, 14 @ 1:19 pm:

    For who Guy?


  9. - kizzoboy - Friday, Jul 11, 14 @ 1:24 pm:

    Constitutional amendment - all new hirees 401k-style system. Long term solution.


  10. - VanillaMan - Friday, Jul 11, 14 @ 1:26 pm:

    the only constitutional solutions will likely further damage the state’s credit rating even as the ship is being slowly righted

    Likely? Further?

    No. We’ve hit bottom. Anything now is an improvement. Our only options are constitutional and that can happen rather quickly if it wasn’t an election year and Democrats weren’t in a panic.

    Tax retirement income. Make it temporary so that it applies to the cause of this problem - too many Boomer retirements. So, make it good for 25 years. That ought ot outlast them.


  11. - kizzoboy - Friday, Jul 11, 14 @ 1:29 pm:

    What about an income tax ONLY on public pension systems? Revenue generated gets ear-marked to go back into the systems. If the state could pass a tax that specific it could have the same budget effect as the now unconstitutional law would have had…


  12. - Mason born - Friday, Jul 11, 14 @ 1:36 pm:

    Kizzoboy

    I suspect the first Federal Judge you talk to would chuck that one.


  13. - Jimbo - Friday, Jul 11, 14 @ 1:41 pm:

    I think we should only tax commenters with the handle Kizzoboy. That would be unfair though wouldn’t it. The pensioners aren’t the cause of this problem.


  14. - Yellow Dog Democrat - Friday, Jul 11, 14 @ 1:41 pm:

    Kizzoboy:

    An income tax applying only to the retirements of public employees would be unconstitutional.

    Plus, if you think SB 1 was politically difficult, consider that idea politically impossible.

    Unless you know some legislators eager to vote for a $100 billion tax hike?


  15. - Cassiopeia - Friday, Jul 11, 14 @ 1:42 pm:

    On the flip side Illinois GO Bonds are a really good high yield investment going forward…

    This is actually not a snarky comment.


  16. - Norseman - Friday, Jul 11, 14 @ 1:45 pm:

    kizzoboy, sorry but your idea is unconstitutional as well. If you want to tax retirement income, you have to apply it to all retirees.


  17. - PoolGuy - Friday, Jul 11, 14 @ 1:45 pm:

    If Bruce is Gov come next January, would not want to be in his shoes. keep taxes at 5% and have Madigan stick the tax increase right in his face, or a progressive tax to cover state’s expenses and honor the pensions. or tax on retirement income.

    or cut taxes back to 3.75% or lower, go to war with unions, major cuts in state services, layoff thousands of teachers and state workers (which would increase our unemployment rates) and still have to deal with lower credit ratings.

    yikes, who wants to be Gov…


  18. - Stones - Friday, Jul 11, 14 @ 1:47 pm:

    That doesn’t change what is constitutionally correct.


  19. - Anon - Friday, Jul 11, 14 @ 1:49 pm:

    “Constitutional amendment - all new hirees 401k-style system. Long term solution.”

    But the State can’t rob 401ks and then there are Social Security payments. Will there be matching funds? Can’t cheat on 401ks. The money can not be deferred.


  20. - Ret Prof - Friday, Jul 11, 14 @ 1:56 pm:

    ok all you 401K proponents. What happens to the balance of the money if someone dies? Currently someone who collects for a few years and passes (with no dependents) the money stays in the system.


  21. - OLK 73 - Friday, Jul 11, 14 @ 1:56 pm:

    If I was Madigan/Cullerton I’d quit now and avoid the lynch mobs now that the Union’s realize once and for all they will sold a bill of goods and now they will pay the price.


  22. - Big Muddy - Friday, Jul 11, 14 @ 1:57 pm:

    Those that say pensioners are not part of the problem are wrong. They too are PART of the problem. Just like Republican AND Democrat members of all state government going back decades. Placing blame here is truly pointless as there is more than enough to go around… for everyone. There is going to have to be, at some point, a grand compromise between the unions, the politicians and the taxpayers. Without one the pension systems should just be allowed to dry up.


  23. - A guy... - Friday, Jul 11, 14 @ 2:02 pm:

    === Jimbo - Friday, Jul 11, 14 @ 1:19 pm:

    For who Guy?====

    For everyone Jimbo. Look at the Moody’s statement. Read how they describe the “construe it liberally” portion of the ISC finding and how they compare it to everywhere and anywhere else that pensions have been an issue.

    I know the ruling was hailed as a huge victory. I just think it’s really not. They can award you $100B, but if the money’s not there, all you’ve got is a ruling and an empty envelope.

    It’s only a reality check in this state when it gets real. It’s about to soon enough.


  24. - Anon - Friday, Jul 11, 14 @ 2:05 pm:

    Moodys also warned that allowing the income tax hike to expire would be bad for the state’s credit rating. Yet the Tribbies and their GOP allies didn’t pay any attention to that warning. Apparently there are warnings that matter — when they fit a political agenda — and warnings that don’t matter — when they conflict with that agenda.


  25. - A guy... - Friday, Jul 11, 14 @ 2:11 pm:

    Anon, Moody’s doesn’t mind tax hikes. It heightens (temporarily at least) the full faith and credit of the populace. That’s a better lending risk for them. You’re comparing apples and papayas my friend. One is about credit rates, the other is about real retirement income. Those relying on it deserve a sustainable dependable plan.

    I’d agree they earned a lot of it. Even most of it. Some of it was the result of legislators making horrific decisions. Those same unions backed and supported those very legislators. There’s enough blood on the hands of all sides here. I liberally construe that if a decent compromise doesn’t come forward with lots of equally distributed pain, someone’s going to absorb the bulk of the pain. I wouldn’t risk it if I could avoid it.


  26. - Anon - Friday, Jul 11, 14 @ 2:33 pm:

    It’s not apples and oranges. Moodys said a huge dropoff in state revenues would reduce confidence in the state’s ability to pay its bills. Ditto for the court ruling on the health insurance law. Both events shake confidence in the state’s creditworthiness. Republicans care about only one of them.


  27. - Precinct Captain - Friday, Jul 11, 14 @ 2:37 pm:

    ==- RNUG - Friday, Jul 11, 14 @ 1:16 pm:==

    I’ve said it before and I’ll say it now, businesses paid off Moody’s, S&P, et al. to get good ratings for their instruments, the state should send a little their way and next thing you know we’ll be at AAA!

    ==- Big Muddy - Friday, Jul 11, 14 @ 1:57 pm:==

    Please explain how and why pensioners are part of the problem? If we start a fund and each put in $1 a year for 10 years and I put in all my money you only put in $5 of yours, you caused the problem. The state didn’t pay what it owed when it had the money and the bills are coming due. The pensioners didn’t do anything wrong. Blame it on Thompson, Edgar, Ryan, & Blagojevich. Quinn has been making the payments.

    If you’re arguing that state employees and teachers make too much, well I think you’re there too. However, if you’re going to blame people, the ones doing the negotiations were in the governor’s office, which was mostly Republicans for the last generation.


  28. - wordslinger - Friday, Jul 11, 14 @ 2:40 pm:

    –Ty, you’re not helping! –

    Very funny, Norseman.

    –Make it temporary so that it applies to the cause of this problem - too many Boomer retirements. So, make it good for 25 years. That ought ot outlast them–

    Is that a joke? A “temporary” 25-year tax increase? That makes sense to you?

    You’re aware that, in reality, anything authorized by statute can be changed at any time? You can’t bind future GAs by statute to a “temporary” 25-year tax.


  29. - Steve - Friday, Jul 11, 14 @ 2:53 pm:

    Just a reminder to all those expecting a public pension from Chicago and/or Illinois state government: what if your pension check comes in the same “timely” manner that many social services providers get today for lack of funds?


  30. - wordslinger - Friday, Jul 11, 14 @ 2:58 pm:

    –I know the ruling was hailed as a huge victory. I just think it’s really not. They can award you $100B, but if the money’s not there, all you’ve got is a ruling and an empty envelope. –

    What “award” of $100 billion? What does that mean, “empty envelope?”

    The state is a going concern with the ways and means to honor its contracts, as both the state and federal Constitutions require.

    The fact that it borrowed money and now doesn’t want to pay it back means oogats.


  31. - Jimbo - Friday, Jul 11, 14 @ 3:10 pm:

    Okay Guy. Our eyes are open. As for the 100 billion dollar hole, it doesn’t have to be paid tomorrow, or really anytime this decade. It does look really scary growing at 7.5 billion per year.

    The only thing that has to be paid, what the court has ordered to be paid are pension benefits. In the worst case, absolute catastrophe scenario where the pension fund goes bust which it won’t for decades, those will be paid with current employee contributions and GRF. The reason we need to fix the unfunded liability isn’t because the unfunded liability will bankrupt the State, it is because the ratings agencies say it could, so our bonds command insanely higher interest than other states bonds. Notably much lower than the historical average.

    They think that if the State did go run it like a ponzi scheme, pension obligations would be a massive part of the budget. That assumes inflation will continue at the same rate however. It is okay though because Tier II is a net gain to the State. Once the Tier I folks are gone, it becomes more sustainable.

    It isn’t ideal, and I would argue we should strive to get to 90% funded regardless. I’m simply saying that the pensions won’t destroy us all. The UL will likely be reamortized and we’re looking at some manner of tax code changes (service tax, retirement income tax, graduated tax, higher rate than 3.75) and some rethinking of spending priorities. It seems unfair to spend so much on pensions that folks like you don’t get, but you can’t look at it that way. It is debt service. The State effectively borrowed money from the funds (knowing the interest rate would be 7.5%) by not contributing their portion. If they had, the funds would be at least 85% funded no one would be talking about the issue. Because the state spent borrowed money, it has to pay it back. The ISC will confirm just that. It isn’t the pensioners though who will be eating up all of the tax dollars, it will be debt payments for past spending. Take a look at the percentage of the US Government’s budget is debt service (not that we should emulate their habits).


  32. - Six Degrees of Separation - Friday, Jul 11, 14 @ 3:12 pm:

    Can you elaborate on what the solutions are that you think would likely damage the state’s credit rating?

    There’s only a few ways out if the pension debt can’t be forgiven by “police power” justification. Taxing, borrowing, debt restructuring and defaulting, all with some negative connotations in the bond ratings department. This has been discussed here ad infinitum. It is not a deal killer by any means; just that this state will probably have to pay more to borrow money and issue bonds than other states for a long time.


  33. - Big Muddy - Friday, Jul 11, 14 @ 3:12 pm:

    PC @ 2:37,
    Anyone who thinks it is financially fair to pay into a system that covers the first few years of their own retirement and then gets a lifetime of 3% compounding increases no matter what the markets/investments return is part of the problem. The unions of these pensioners also supported the pension holiday that they so quickly forget! There is blood on everyone’s hands here. Don’t play the victim, we are all victims in this mess!


  34. - Steve - Friday, Jul 11, 14 @ 3:12 pm:

    - wordslinger -

    How about all those social service providers Illinois has “promised” to pay: how’s that working? I hope some people can “wait 9 months” to get paid… on their pension because don’t think that can’t happen here- if there’s no money left in a pension fund.


  35. - anon - Friday, Jul 11, 14 @ 3:12 pm:

    “I liberally construe that if a decent compromise doesn’t come forward with lots of equally distributed pain, someone’s going to absorb the bulk of the pain. I wouldn’t risk it if I could avoid it.”

    Why should a government employee who paid in and worked for below par pay for years agree to any compromise given the court rulings? The only “equally distributed pain” which is constitutional and fair to everyone is an increase in the general tax. Wishful thinking that public employees are gonna voluntarily take a huge hit over this just so you don’t have to pay your fair share.


  36. - Rich Miller - Friday, Jul 11, 14 @ 3:14 pm:

    Steve, we’re currently at the top of the Edgar ramp. It’s about 21 percent of GRF here on out.


  37. - Jimbo - Friday, Jul 11, 14 @ 3:15 pm:

    Sorry for the punctuation and grammatical errors, probably spelling too, I typed that comment on a tablet.


  38. - Cook County Commoner - Friday, Jul 11, 14 @ 3:18 pm:

    If the state decides to tax pensions in order to pay for pensions, could an argument be made that that is an impairment and diminishment under Art. 13, Sec. 5 of the state constitution?


  39. - A guy... - Friday, Jul 11, 14 @ 3:21 pm:

    === anon - Friday, Jul 11, 14 @ 3:12 pm:

    Why should a government employee who paid in and worked for below par pay for years agree to any compromise given the court rulings? The only “equally distributed pain” which is constitutional and fair to everyone is an increase in the general tax. Wishful thinking that public employees are gonna voluntarily take a huge hit over this just so you don’t have to pay your fair share.====

    Yeah, bring that approach to the table. Convince over 13 million people that they haven’t paid their ‘fair share’ to live here. That’s a winner.

    I guess “below par pay” is in the eye of the depositor. I’m sure it is true for some. I suspect most people would tell you they’ve worked for below par pay no matter where they worked.


  40. - Jimbo - Friday, Jul 11, 14 @ 3:31 pm:

    We’re all victims, but the folks who worked in return for compensation, of which the pension and the AAI is part, are the only ones that must pay? Let me say this again, we aren’t paying for pensions here people, we are repaying debt to the pension system.


  41. - wordslinger - Friday, Jul 11, 14 @ 3:32 pm:

    Steve, you realize pensions are in separate funds and not paid out of GRF?

    Assuming statutory annual GRF contributions and historic returns, what’s the ETA on your Doomsday scenario?

    The pensions have been in “crisis” since the 40s. Yet no check has ever been missed or late.

    The hysterical p.r. con job by the Civvies and Tribbies was never about “can’t pay” the money that was borrowed but “don’t want to and lets see what we can get away with.”

    I think the Supremes have signaled that pipe dream is over.


  42. - Jack Handy - Friday, Jul 11, 14 @ 3:33 pm:

    We don’t realize it yet but are in a “Seldon Crisis” and Madigan will appear again this veto session to point us to the one and only inevitable course of action, the cost shift.


  43. - Jimbo - Friday, Jul 11, 14 @ 3:36 pm:

    Big Muddy, have you ever heard of an annuity? You can’t look at the hard number of dollars paid in and compare that to future dollars taken out? All of that money invested compounds at 7.5%. And maybe you should look at the historical rate of return of the S&P if you think that’s so outlandish. Also, if you want a “sweetheart” deal that allows you to receive many more dollars than you paid, perhaps you should purchase an annuity.


  44. - Mama - Friday, Jul 11, 14 @ 3:55 pm:

    Taxing a retiree’s pension would be a diminishment of the retirees’ pension. Please correct me if I’m wrong here. “What is good for the Goose is good for….” Therefore, if you tax the retired state employees’ and teachers’ pensions, etc., you will have to tax the private sector’s pensions or 401K too! Believe it or not, teachers, state employees, etc. already paid taxes before money was put into in the pension funds while they were still working. I should have said before the retirement money should have been placed into the pension funds!


  45. - Jimmy - Friday, Jul 11, 14 @ 3:57 pm:

    Can we close out this week with David Bowie’s “Panic in Detroit?”


  46. - Big Muddy - Friday, Jul 11, 14 @ 3:58 pm:

    Jimbo,
    This annuity you speak of? Can I buy one that over my retirement life I only put in, on average less than 5% of the dollars I actually receive? Sorry, can’t get one of those deals as an average non-union working stiff.
    I want pensioners to receive a fair pension in their retirement, but the math just isn’t gonna work here folks. All need to take a haircut here. Pensioners, politicians and yes, us taxpayers. Pushing the cost solely on to the backs of taxpayers would not be pretty.


  47. - Six Degrees of Separation - Friday, Jul 11, 14 @ 4:01 pm:

    Anyone who thinks it is financially fair to pay into a system that covers the first few years of their own retirement and then gets a lifetime of 3% compounding increases no matter what the markets/investments return is part of the problem.

    The Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund does this, and is 80% funded and sustainable. The only diffence being, unlike the state systems, the employer contribution as well as the employee contribution has always been made. Defined benefit pensions are not like an employee paying into a 1% savings account. They are both employer and employee paying into a fund, which is in turn pooled and invested in financial instruments, which in a good year can produce yields that keep up with or exceed what goes out in benefits. As late as 2000, the State Employees Retirement System was 80% funded, largely due to some really good investment years during the Clinton era.


  48. - anon - Friday, Jul 11, 14 @ 4:02 pm:

    @ A guy, you forget that public employees pay taxes like everyone else. That’s what “shared sacrifice” means.

    And as to the issue of payment out of the general fund, the recent Appellate Court decision in the County Treasurer stipend case made it clear that the courts have the constitutional power to order payment of pensions even if there is not one cent left in the designated pension fund.


  49. - Taser - Friday, Jul 11, 14 @ 4:08 pm:

    Jack Handy - The State will not only need to implement the cost shift but it will need to make further cuts to higher ed and chop sales tax revenue to local governments. These entities (municipalities will need State approval) can resort to the BK courts to fix these problems. We may even see an emergency manager for Chicago - just like in Detroit.

    Casino tax revenue belongs to Detroit and can’t be tapped by a bond insurer while Detroit is in bankruptcy, a federal judge ruled Friday, dealing a setback to one of the city’s last holdout creditors.

    From The Detroit News: http://www.detroitnews.com/article/20140711/METRO01/307110058#ixzz37CEUmsuq


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* Microsoft reportedly thinks the world can wait until 2019 for an upgraded HoloLens
* Exynos 9810 is likely the name of Samsung’s next big SoC, and a new Gear VR is also coming
* NuAns NEO Reloaded made official, will ship in May
* Foxconn Shares Riding High on Strong iPhone 8 Expectations
* LG V20 goes half off with AT&T Next plans, refurb LG G4 costs just $120 on eBay
* T-Mobile ONE doubles international data roaming speeds to 256kbps
* Nougat rolls out to all T-Mobile Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge users, also starts spreading to AT&T models

* White Sox plan for Avisail to see time in RF
* White Sox slugger Abreu eyeing healthy '17
* Tilson sidelined with stress reaction in foot
* Tilson sidelined with stress reaction in foot
* Renteria establishes rapport with White Sox
* Energized Lawrie stepping in right direction
* Moncada ignores hype, focuses on Sox roster


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