Anyone who has taken an introductory level philosophy class knows the analogy — the study of philosophy is like looking for a black cat in a dark room.
That’s just about where the State of Illinois stands on its funding issue. The state is aware of the problem, but is certainly having problems putting its hands on a solution.
Whenever the pension situation is discussed, the tendency seems to be to assign blame. Granted, there is plenty to go around, but at this point, looking backward is counterproductive. We need ideas. We need solutions.
And we need them now.
School funding is a problem across the educational spectrum in Illinois. Sen. Andy Manar, D-Bunker Hill, is carrying the water for reform of K-12 funding. No one has jumped in to take a leadership role at the secondary level.
There’s probably a good reason for that — the water is murky. And, most potential solutions seem to carry an equally viable counter-argument as standard equipment.
More tax revenue? Waste in the current system is inevitably cited. Certainly individual institutions can control costs, but this hole is too deep for such a simple solution.
Shifting pension costs to individual institutions? It helps the state’s bottom line, but it doesn’t make the debt disappear. Universities are in position to increase revenue through their foundations, or even raising tuition. However, rising tuition would only exacerbate the flight of local students to the University of Southern Indiana, Murray State and Southeast Missouri State University.
Restructuring the pension program for new hires? It doesn’t address the current debt, and could be a detriment in recruiting quality teachers and administrators.
So, how does Illinois catch that proverbial black cat.
The jury is still out, but clearly it is time for the state to move forward. This newspaper has been editorializing about the unfunded pension liability for years. Yet, precious little has been accomplished in Springfield.
It would be easy to blame the situation on the toxic political environment currently gripping Springfield, but that is neither fair nor accurate. Funding the state pension system has been an issue facing Illinois since the halcyon days of Jim Edgar.
Predictably, hiding the black cat of pension funding in a dark room has made the situation worse.
How serious is it?
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The Southern’s Molly Parker reported in a story earlier this week that pension appropriations for Illinois universities have surpassed operations appropriations. Think about that for a moment … it’s a staggering situation. It’s also not sustainable.
What are the consequences if the pension situation isn’t addressed?
Are we looking at a wildly diminished Southern Illinois University? SIU is the region’s largest employer. The fiscal health of SIU has a direct impact on residents of Carbondale, Pinckneyville, Harrisburg and Jonesboro.
Are we looking at divvying up educational opportunities between the various state universities? Could Southern Illinois become a center for aviation and agriculture while many of the liberal arts programs are eliminated?
Although that could be fiscally attractive, it certainly would diminish the college experience for students.
It’s clear we need real leadership on this issue. We need it now. Our future is at stake.