Mayor Lori Lightfoot is urging Gov. J.B. Pritzker to veto a bill boosting pensions for thousands of Chicago firefighters, arguing it would saddle beleaguered taxpayers with perpetual property tax increases and cripple a pension fund dangerously close to insolvency.
The bill, introduced by state Sen. Robert Martwick, D-Chicago, a Lightfoot political nemesis, passed in the waning hours of the lame duck session and awaits Pritzker’s signature or veto.
It removes the “birth date restriction” that prohibits roughly 2,200 active and retired firefighters born after Jan. 1, 1966 from receiving a 3% annual cost of living increase. Instead, they get half that amount, 1.5% — and it is not compounded.
Martwick has argued the “birth date restriction” already has been moved five times as a way of masking the true cost to the pension fund.
Lightfoot strongly disagreed.
Her letter to Pritzker argues that the bill amounts to ill-timed and unaffordable pension sweetener that would saddle Chicago taxpayers with up $823 million in added costs by 2055.
“This huge increase in unfunded liabilities would necessarily mean another property tax hike for Chicagoans, which would regrettably add to the overwhelming economic duress that so many or our neighbors are facing,” wrote Lightfoot, whose $12.8 billion budget includes a $94 million property tax increase, followed by annual increases tied to the consumer price index.
“It is highly problematic to implement this change at a time when 10 percent of Chicagoans have lost their jobs, many of whom have faced difficult putting food on the table and are housing insecure. … Now is not the time to add even more to taxpayers’ burden. The signing into law … as written will mean raising taxes on Chicagoans now and in the future.”
The governor’s office noted the pension bill passed with more than enough votes in both chambers to override a veto, including support from the majority of Chicago Democrats, and that none of the 50 Chicago aldermen signed the mayor’s letter.
“This administration is reviewing the legislation, which would continue to provide firefighters with a pension benefit that the city has already provided for years,” the governor’s office wrote in an emailed statement.
In the letter to the governor, obtained by the Chicago Sun-Times, Lightfoot further argues the pension bill would have a “devastating impact” on a pension fund with assets to cover just 18% of its $5 billion in liabilities.
“Signing this bill will continue … [the fund] down an already unsustainable path. … Increasing [its] financial obligations when it is already in dire condition, coupled with the absence of a clear funding source, is the definition of fiscal irresponsibility,” she wrote.
Because there is “no good-faith basis for elevating one pension fund over another,” Lightfoot further warned Pritzker’s signature on the bill would set a “dangerous precedent” and put more pressure on Chicago property owners.
“It could open the door to a similarly unfunded pension benefit enhancement for the police pension fund, which is only 22 percent funded and has approximately $11 billion in unfunded liabilities. There is no good faith basis for elevating on person fund over another,” she wrote.
Instead of signing the bill, Lightfoot urged the governor to chart a different course.
“Gather all concerned and have a candid, rational conversation about how to once and for all put all of Chicago’s pension funds on a path to solvency. In the absence of this effort, heaping on more debt is reckless. … On behalf of Chicago taxpayers … I respectfully urge you to veto” the bill.
Jim Tracy, president of Chicago Firefighters Union Local 2, said he has not “seen or heard of any letter going to the governor” about the pension bill.
Last spring, Lightfoot openly acknowledged she and Pritzker have disagreed while waging war against coronavirus, but she said then they have tried to keep those differences in house.
But long before the pandemic, there were clashes behind the scenes between two of Illinois’ most powerful Democrats on the issue of pensions.
Lightfoot floated a plan for a state takeover of Chicago’s four city employee pension funds only to be shot down cold by the governor.
“To be clear, the state is at just above junk status in its credit rating. So there are not liabilities that can be adopted by the state that would not drive us into junk status. So, that is not something that we can do,” Pritzker said in the summer of 2019, with Lightfoot standing awkwardly at his side during a news conference highlighting passage of the $45 billion capital bill.