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The weak economy is taking a toll on many state budgets. Less economic activity means lower tax revenue. But the situation is especially bad in states with large pension obligations. At the top of that list is Illinois. It has promised its public sector workers more than any other state, and it doesn't have the money to pay them when they retire.
Politicians there have pledged to fix things, but a solution won't come any time soon, as Amanda Vinicky of member station WUIS in Springfield reports.
AMANDA VINICKY, BYLINE: In 2010, only one state, Wisconsin, had enough money in the bank to fund all of the retirement benefits it had promised its employees. The rest had collectively racked up nearly $1.5 trillion of pension debt. That's according to a recent study by the Pew Center on the States.
DAVID DRAINE: What we're seeing is not the result of one bad year or two bad years. It's the result of a decade of bad choices in states like Illinois where policymakers really have consistently fallen short on what they should have been doing.
VINICKY: That's David Draine, a senior researcher with Pew, who says that politicians are letting down not only the workers counting on those benefits, but also the taxpayers who fund them. The study also places Connecticut, Kentucky and Rhode Island in the bottom tier. But Illinois is the worst. The gap between what Illinois promises its employees what they'll get when they retire and what it has set aside to pay them is $83 billion. Illinois government would have to completely shut down for two and a half years and use all of the tax money it collects to pay that off. Draine says that leaves Illinois with few options.
DRAINE: It's going to find itself either having to make very tough tax increases, Draconian cuts in services, or it's going to have to find money by cutting the benefits its offering current employees and retirees in painful and unpleasant ways.
VINICKY: Already, Illinois has cut back the benefits for newly hired teachers and state workers. And the threat that they'll next come after current ones has led to an exodus of public employees like Brenda Allan. After more than 23 years as a secretary at the University of Illinois Springfield, Allan is calling it quits. As she steps away from the retirement party being held in her honor, Allan says she'd thought about retiring for a couple of years.
BRENDA ALLAN: But also, there is the concern of, you know, what the General Assembly is doing and what impact that is going to have on both current and future retirees.
VINICKY: Allan's not alone. In May, when legislators appeared poised to cut pension benefits, lines formed outside the State Employees Retirement System offices in the capital city as government workers put in their notices.
ALLAN: It's a little bit humorous to me. The retirement card that I received today simply says thank you. And the reason for that is because there are so many state employees and university people retiring within the city of Springfield that you cannot go into any store and buy a retirement card at this point.
VINICKY: Despite the fears, Illinois hasn't taken the big step yet. Democratic Governor Pat Quinn says the crisis is real.
GOVERNOR PAT QUINN: We just simply cannot afford this. The squeeze is on.
VINICKY: This year, 15 percent of the budget's going toward pensions.
QUINN: Our allocations for education, for human services, for health care, for public safety, less and less of the percentage of our budget will go to those important causes if we don't reform our pension system.
VINICKY: Despite the governor's adamant tone, talks are now at a standstill. Democrats control the legislature, and Republicans accuse them of stalling. Given the money that unions contribute to lawmakers' campaigns, it's not surprising that in an election year, legislators are in no hurry to cut benefits. But waiting comes at an expense. It costs the state $12.6 million every day the state does nothing to address the pension crisis. For NPR News, I'm Amanda Vinicky in Springfield, Illinois.
SIEGEL: This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.
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