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Pensions: Vexing Illinois Politicians Since 1917

Amanda Vinicky/Illinois Public Radio

The underfunding of the state's pensions have grabbed headlines the past several years, and finally reached the political tipping point late last year when legislators passed an overhaul of the systems.

It's a recent response to a very old problem.

It was Gov. Pat Quinn who signed the law that reduces state workers' and most public school teachers' pensions -- a controversial plan that's at the center of a lawsuit.

It's meant to shore up the state's long-term pension debt --- which ballooned over time, mostly because lawmakers for years didn't properly fund the systems. That's caused Illinois a lot of pain: credit rating downgrades, cuts to other programs as the state tries to play catch-up, workers and retirees upset about broken promises.

But maybe it all could have been different, had Frank Lowden taken notice of a legislative report that came out when he became Illinois' governor, back in 1917.

"And that report basically said that the pension systems were on the verge of insolvency, and it was one of crisis," says Eric Madiar, Senate Democratic President John Cullerton's chief legal counsel.

Madiar haswritten a new report, looking back at Illinois' long struggle paying for pensions. That history long may have ramifications for the future.

The state's trying to argue the 2013 law is needed despite a constitutional guarantee protecting benefits because there was no other choice.

But if funding has been an issue for nearly a century, Madiar says it does not look "favorable to the pension reform."