Chicago Now: Top Illinois Democrat goes blind; says state's huge pension debt not a 'crisis'

TUA’s commentary on Illinois’ corporate income tax was featured in an article by Dennis Byrne at Chicago Now.

dennisbyrneUPDATED: Illinois Senate President John Cullerton said Sunday that the state’s massive public employee pension debt is not a “crisis,” but instead an issue being pushed by business-backed groups seeking lower income taxes at the expense of retiree benefits. — Chicago Tribune
That’s the $100 billion owed by us taxpayers to the government employee pension funds. In truth, it would be a lot more than $100 billion if more realistic and professional actuarial standards were used to calculate the debt. (The bogus calculation assumes that the pension funds earn 8 percent interest.)
Never mind the 86,134 backlogged bills totalling $5.4 billion that the state also owes to its suppliers and service providers, many of them health care professionals that are essential for the well-being of poor people.
Never mind $71 billion in bonded indebtedness and that the state has the worst credit rating of the 50 states, meaning that borrowing the money to keep the state running keeps getting more and more expensive.
Never mind that the revenues from the Illinois income tax increase is being gobbled up by pension obligations, meaning less and less money for health care, law enforcement, education, transportation and other essential functions.
Cullerton’s assertion is a rare look into the empty noggins of the folks responsible for this mess, and signals a warning that state’s finances likely won’t be significantly improved. (We could well see a “window dressing” non-solution to create the fiction that the clueless Democrats who run the state are “doing something.”
UPDATE: Jim Tobin, of Taxpayers United of America, reminds us that the corporate income tax rate in Illinois is 9.5 percent, not the 7 percent that Cullerton states in the story. Tobin has noted that the figure seems to be misreported frequently by some in the media.

Green Bay Taxpayers Duped by Government Pension Secrecy

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Green Bay—Taxpayers United of America (TUA) today released the results of its study of the Green Bay Municipal, Brown County, and Brown County Government school employees.
“The State of Wisconsin, hiding behind a secrecy law, refuses to release actual pension payments derived from huge taxpayer subsidies. Because we have a right to know just how much ‘public servants’ get paid not to work, we must estimate the pensions of current employees,” stated Jim Tobin, president of TUA.
“While Wisconsin may have made big moves in improving their government pension system, the state is a long way from stabilizing a broken system.”
“Taxpayers need to listen to economists who know what they are talking about and not the government bureaucrats who are responsible for the fund’s performance. Wisconsin’s pension fund is not 99% funded and if we don’t face reality and plan appropriately, we will be in as terrible shape as Illinois.”
“A government pension’s unfunded liability is calculated by using a rate of return on investment or discount rate to determine the future value of the current value of the asset, or cash balance compared to the total defined benefits that have to be paid out.  Wisconsin pension fund managers are using 7.2% for that calculation when private standards call for a rate of about 3.25%.”
“That may not sound like much of a difference but what it means to Wisconsin taxpayers is about $60 billion in unfunded liabilities, according to the State Budget Solution analysis.”
“75% to 80% of local taxes go to pay the salaries and pensions of government employees. Taxpayers have a right to see the details of those payments. How can taxpayers understand exactly how much their government employees are being paid in total compensation, salary plus benefits, without access to the actual payments to retirees? Wisconsin taxpayers have a right to review, evaluate, and make decisions about those payments.”
“That is precisely why we are here now, releasing the salaries and pension estimates for the Green Bay and Brown County government employees. $60 billion dollars in unfunded liabilities is really hard to comprehend, but when you see what actual people in your community get in salaries and how those salaries become a pension tax burden of more than $10,437 for every man, woman, and child, the problem becomes clear.”
“For example, Yogesh C. Pareek, Brown County clinical director, makes $245,242 in annual salary. Assuming he meets the criteria for a full pension, he would collect an estimated annual pension and Social Security payment of $197,600*. Those annual payments would accumulate to $4,149,592* over a normal lifetime. Remember this is what he would be paid not to work for about 21 years.”
“Brown County government school employee Michelle Langenfeldgets an annual salary of $190,000 plus another $50,000 in fringe benefits. Her estimated annual pension with Social Security is $159,000* and her estimated lifetime payout is $3,339,000*.”
“Green Bay municipal government employee, Edward E. Wiesner gets an annual gross of $108,211. His estimated lifetime pension payout is $2,136,705* based on his annual estimated pension and Social Security payment of $101,748*.”
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“Wisconsin taxpayers who are on the hook for unfunded liabilities get an average ‘pension’ from Social Security of about $15,000. Private sector taxpayers don’t enjoy nearly iron-clad job security and struggle with average unemployment of 6.7% and in some areas, over 10%.”
“While our pension estimates are a very useful education tool, I encourage Green Bay and all Wisconsin taxpayers to demand the right to review pension payments. I have written letters to Governor Walker and every member of the state legislature, urging them to stop hiding pension payments from taxpayer review.”
“Wisconsin needs not only to be more transparent, but to continue with pension reforms that will bring its government employee benefits in line with those of the private sector. Specifically, government pensions need to be replaced with 401k-style retirement savings accounts where taxpayer contributions are made when the conditions allow it. Government employees need to increase their contributions to match the level of the private sector, and government retirees and employees need to pay for at least half of their health-care premiums.”
*Gross wages provided by government administrator and may include overtime or PTO that would not be eligible for pension calculation.
Annual Pension Estimate Assumptions:
1. Assumes employee retires one year from now and this salary would be the second to last salary.
2. Assumes 41 or more years of employment with SS W/H, retirement age is 65, and fully vested with 70% pension
3. Plus Social Security (non-firefighters) assuming 4% salary increases over last 35 years.
Lifetime Pension Estimate uses IRS Life Expectancy Table (Form 590) at age 65 = 21 years

Wisconsin Reporter | Report shines light on government employee salary

Findings from TUA’s pension project on Dane County, Wisconsin, are featured in this story from
wisreportOctBy Ryan Ekvall | Wisconsin Reporter
MADISON – Want to increase your salary? Join the Dane County government workforce.
Hundreds of public employees in Madison and throughout Dane County take home more than the average Wisconsin family, raking in six figure salaries and potentially more than a million dollars in future pension payouts.
Vincent Tranchida, the county medical examiner, forensic pathologist and top Dane County government wage earner, made more than $204,429 in 2012.
Eighty-three other Dane County employees each made more than $100,000 last year. Another 1,318 made more than $50,000 last year. And 520 others made more than $40,000.
“Most people think their tax dollars are going to the needy, no, it’s going to the greedy,” said Jim Tobin, president of Taxpayers United of America.
Taxpayers United of America compiled the government salary data from open records requests filed in Dane County.
Eleven lawyers representing county agencies earn more than $100,000 a year. Kesti McCredie, a toll booth attendant, made $51,791. Three other toll booth attendants made more than $40,000.
Ryan Sheahan, the county’s tobacco coalition coordinator, made $64,230.
While Tobin’s confrontational, firebrand style may be off-putting to some, he raises a good question.
“Don’t you want to know who is getting and how much they’re getting?” he asked. “That’s a big part of where your money is going.”
Joshua Wescott, chief of staff for Dane County Executive Joe Parisi, took home $114,534 in 2012. For comparison, President Obama’s former chief of staff Rahm Emanuel made $172,000 in 2009.
Wescott did not return phone calls from Wisconsin Reporter. Parisi, who was in a meeting when Wisconsin Reporter called, made $117,038.
Karin Thurlow, chief of staff for the Dane County Board of Supervisors, made $96,656 last year. Mary Beil, employed by Dane County to lobby the state Legislature for more tax dollars, was paid $91,765.
The average full-time Dane County government employee makes nearly as much as the average family in the county – about $62,000 according to Census data.
Property taxes in the county, meanwhile, have grown $115 during the past dozen years on the average Madison home for the Dane County portion of the tax bill. The proposed 2014 Dane County budget would increase property taxes another $18.39 on the average Madison home.
Wisconsin has some of the highest property tax burdens in the country. A 2011 report from the Tax Foundation found Dane County property taxes ranked 51st in the country at an average of $4,038 per household. That figure, taken from 2005-2009 data, includes city, school district and county property taxes paid.
“This is completely inflammatory and inaccurate,” Charles Hicklin, the county controller, said of the report. Hicklin ranked 23rd in county government pay with a 2012 salary of $123,780.
His beef was not with the salary data; 40 percent — or $190 million — of the county’s $476 million operating budget went to salaries and fringe benefits, he said.
Hicklin raised hackles over the pension payout projections calculated by Taxpayers United of America.
TUA took the data from top 100 salary earners in Dane County government and projected they would take home lifetime pension and Social Security payments between $1.9 million and $3.5 million.
That works out to about $91,000 to $169,000 a year, depending on salary.
To come to those numbers, TUA estimates government employees work 41 years, retire at age 65, live to age 86 and receive Social Security with 4-percent salary increases. A mitigating factor is TUA assumes no annual pension increases from growth in the Wisconsin Retirement System.
All told, Tobin’s pension numbers are exaggerated in most instances. A worker would have to spend the majority of his career in the government sector to reach the payouts Tobin projects.
“They criticize us for making estimates,” he said. “We’d rather just do it from the real data. They won’t give us the real data.”
Wisconsin is one of 17 states without a public pension sunshine law.
“While our pension estimates are a very useful tool, I encourage Madison and all Wisconsin taxpayers to demand the right to review pension payments,” he said.