Retired teachers react to Illinois pension reform plans

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Nearly 200 retired Illinois teachers are going back to school in Rock Island on Wednesday.

It's a lesson on Illinois' money troubles. Something that's sparking a call from Gov. Pat Quinn for pension reform after decades of mismanagement.

"We've got to cut money some place," said Bob Lyons, a trustee with the Teachers' Retirement System of the State of Illinois. "We're one of the areas. If you can cut into the cost of pensions, you're going to save a lot of money."

Money for teacher pensions comes from the state, school district and employee contributions. But since 1953, Lyons says that Illinois saved money by shorting the fund some $15 billion.

"What makes me mad now is the legislature," he continued. "You tell them that, and they say, 'We know, but there's nothing we can do. That's past.'"

Retired teachers shouldn't have to worry, but their working colleagues could face big changes.

Current teachers could be asked to work more years, pay more into the system and receive a much smaller pension.

Teachers would work until age 67 under Gov. Quinn's proposal. There would be a 3% increase in employee contributions and other concessions.

"If they're going to have to stay until 67 and not be able to be replaced earlier by younger teachers who are paid less, that's going to be a serious problem for all the taxpayers of the district," said Mike Schmidt, president-elect of the Blackhawk District Illinois Retired Teachers Association.

Gov. Quinn says that his plan will save pensions while paying the state's bills. He says it will usher in "a new era of fiscal responsibility and stability to Illinois."

While state lawmakers have yet to introduce legislation, Lyons believes that any reform package will get a legal challenge.

"What they do will probably have to go into the courts," he said. "Somebody will look at it and say, 'You're taking away my benefits I've already earned.'"

For these retired teachers, it's a bitter lesson about Illinois finances. It could be even more challenging for the current and next generation of educators.

"It seems as if the legislature over the last few years has almost gone out of their way to make it difficult for young people to decide to become teachers," Schmidt concluded.

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