Effingham Daily News, Effingham, IL

January 14, 2013

How Illinois can be a broke state defies logic

Joshua Robison
Effingham Daily News

EFFINGHAM — As many of you know, I am a school teacher. Like most school teachers, I plan to someday retire and drive around New England in the fall. While I have a considerable number of years before retirement, I used to daydream about this day quite often.

My original plan was to pick a year when no one else was retiring, thus leaving it up to me to soak up the attention. My retirement banquet would be a lavish affair, with finger foods and what not, with former students and colleagues taking turns at the podium, describing my overall greatness. The ceremonies would end with a clever yet inspiring speech by me before a band punctuated the evening with a rousing rendition of one of my favorite songs; perhaps the Indiana Jones theme or something from Green Day. Regardless, the night would be lovely. I could hardly wait.

Unfortunately, the State of Illinois is trying to ruin my life, raining on my future parade without my consent by threatening to once again molest my retirement savings. Without this money, I will not be able to retire and, therefore, the aforementioned retirement ceremony, while undoubtedly fun in its own right, will be terribly awkward and perhaps even unethical.

While pension reform is certainly an important topic worthy of reasoned debate, from my perspective the main reason Springfield is thinking about ruining my retirement decades before it even begins is really quite simple. Illinois, while aesthetically pleasant in the autumn, is bad at being a state. Somehow we are broke. As to how a state the size of Illinois, with acres upon acres of farmland, numerous navigable rivers, access to the Great Lakes and one of the largest cities on Earth, can be broke defies logic, but I suspect it may be connected to the fact that many of our governors eventually get arrested. But I digress. Back to my future money problems.

Our state legislators have considered a number of options to combat the growing problem of unfunded pension liability.  Generally speaking, these ideas have been pretty bad. Some suggest the pension burden be shifted to local school districts, which is kind of like using your child's piggy bank as a down payment on a house. Others recommend that pension benefits themselves be reduced while the retirement age is increased. Regardless of the plan, though, the basic idea is this: Teachers and other public service employees will either need to retire without the benefits they have helped finance and to which they are constitutionally authorized, or they can keep working until they pass out, leaving our school systems in the throes of a geriatric nightmare.

Many readers might recall their own school days and remember, like me, the seasoned veteran educator. Well past retirement age, this teacher, crotchety and confused, simply kept at it year after year. Back then, it may have seemed kind of amusing the way he or she would fall asleep in study hall. Perhaps we chuckled when the Bunsen burner experiment went on a little too long, or rolled our eyes every time the hamster escaped. 

Consider this, however. What if someday every teacher in the school is "well past retirement age," simply because they cannot afford to retire? After all, unlike the vast majority of Americans, career educators are not eligible for social security. Is this the future we want for our society? A future where students are being taught by us, their great-grandparents? The answer to these questions, of course, is "no." Surely there is a better solution to our state's economic woes than to force people into situations that will, at the very least, result in someone being set on fire.

I do have some ideas about possible solutions to this predicament, but they will have to wait until later. After all, if I'm going to be teaching for another 35 years, I should probably go get some rest.

Joshua Robison can be reached at joshuawade.15@aol.com.