Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed a bill aimed at fixing pensions for thousands of Chicago firefighters on Monday, rejecting Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s call to veto the legislation that she called “highly problematic.”
The governor argued the pension fix ensures “certainty and fair treatment” for hardworking firefighters, but Republican lawmakers and fellow Democrat Lightfoot counter that it will sock already strapped taxpayers with another property tax increase.
The new law removes the “birth date restriction” that prohibited roughly 2,200 active and retired firefighters born after Jan. 1, 1966 from receiving a 3% annual cost of living increase.
Instead, those firefighters got half that amount, 1.5% — and it is not compounded.
Pritzker said he’s “always believed that hardworking men and women who have earned their pension shouldn’t pay the price for local or state budget challenges.”
In his statement, the governor said the new law “creates a system that gives all firefighters certainty and fair treatment. And to make sure that the city can meet its obligations, my administration is working to sell the James R. Thompson Center, which will return to the city’s property tax rolls and is projected to generate $45 million annually for the city and its sister agencies.”
Lightfoot issued her own statement, saying she was “disappointed” that Pritzker signed “a bill that will result in a deeper financial burden to the taxpayers of Chicago.”
While first responders deserve to be “appropriately compensated for their work both now and into retirement” signing off on this “unfunded mandate into law is the exact wrong way to accomplish this goal,” the mayor’s statement continued.
“A key missing element is an accompanying revenue stream from Springfield to pay for this $18-30 million annual new financial obligation,” Lightfoot said. “This bill is fiscally irresponsible and validates a Springfield practice of cutting back room deals without full transparency and debate.
“As Mayor, I have a responsibility to ensure a stable financial future for our city and this bill substantially undercuts those efforts. This is a time where we must continue to be hyper-diligent around our present and future financial wellbeing. Springfield must start listening to cities.”
Back in February, the mayor sent Pritzker a letter urging him to veto the bill, arguing that it’s “highly problematic to implement this change at a time when 10 percent of Chicagoans have lost their jobs, many of whom have faced difficulty putting food on the table and are housing insecure.”
“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,” Lightfoot wrote at the time.
Lightfoot’s $12.8 billion budget for the fiscal year includes a $94 million property tax increase, followed by annual increases tied to the consumer price index.
State Sen. Robert Martwick — a frequent foe of Lightfoot’s — introduced the legislation, which was passed with few hours remaining in the General Assembly’s January lame duck session.
The Northwest Side Democrat told the Sun-Times the bill actually protects taxpayers by forcing city officials to face and deal with unpleasant realities.
The city is “sprinting towards the edge of the cliff with no idea how to slow down,” Martwick said. He cautioned that the “best thing for taxpayers is — always has been, and always will be — confronting your problems as they exist and not kicking the can down the road.”
“What this bill does is it makes the city confront necessary, albeit really difficult, decisions about what they need to do with their finances, so that they can live up to the commitment to fund their pensions properly,” Martwick said.
“The firefighter fund sits at 17% funded, functionally almost insolvent,” he said. “If you’re looking to protect taxpayers, the best thing that you can do for them is stop the practices that put you in this big fiscal hole in the first place. In other words, you know you’re going to be on the hook for these benefits, you might as well put the money in timely.”
But Republicans agreed with Lightfoot.
“Chicago taxpayers are on the hook for an additional $850 million thanks to Governor Pritzker signing HB2451 into law today,” House Deputy Minority Leader Tom Demmer, R-Dixon, said in a statement. “As if the $44 billion in pension debt they already owe wasn’t enough, today’s action by Governor Pritzker makes a property tax increase inevitable.
“Further, the Governor continues his bad habit of spending hypothetical revenue by suggesting that the sale of the James R. Thompson Center will be the magic cure for yet another financial problem.”