Pop Quiz: What do these current and former government officials have in common?

Tom Sheahan, a one-time Oak Brook police chief.Jerry Zeldenrust, an ex-Lansing police commander.Glenn Poshard, a former Illinois Congressman.Dennis Gianopolus, an attorney for Calumet City.Ray Orozco Jr., a past Chicago Fire Commissioner.David Hulseberg, a former Lombard village manager.Thomas Downing, a DuPage County supervising prosecutor. Emily Bell, an ex-human services director in Bloomington. Answer: They’re members of Illinois’ “Padded Pension Posse,” which is made up of hundreds—perhaps even thousands—of politically-connected public or quasi-public employees who’ve exploited loopholes in Illinois pension law to boost their retirement benefits by thousands of dollars a month.     We’re talking about legal but fiscally and ethically dubious ways to increase retirement income considerably, including: 

  • “Sweeteners” that fatten monthly payments by adding sick, personal and vacation days to pension calculations;
  • “Spiking,” the term for end-of-career raises that increase retirement checks by thousands of dollars;
  • “Tacking,” which allows non-government workers to participate in public pensions plans;
  • “Double-dipping,” when public employees collect two or more pensions from different units of government at the same time.

Ending those abuses won’t solve our pension crisis—the state’s five major retirement accounts are underfunded by more than $100 billion—but abuse inflates the liability by millions of dollars, and deflates our confidence in government because the recipients are often insiders with the clout and know-how to work the system. As the Better Government Association reported in the Sun-Times recently, the number of Illinois retirees collecting six-figure pensions increased by more than 2,000 in the past year—that’s 17 percent—and some of the growth reflects the gimmicks we’re talking about. State lawmakers, prompted by groups like the BGA, tried to eliminate some of the abuse by including specific prohibitions in their 2013 pension reform bill. But when the Illinois Supreme Court struck down the entire bill on constitutional grounds earlier this year, the anti-abuse provisions died too. The high court deep-sixed the law, which was crafted to save billions of tax dollars, because it would have scaled back benefits already promised to current and future retirees, in apparent violation of the state constitution. But the five lawsuits challenging the bill, as well as the court ruling, barely address the abuses we’re talking about. And there’s nothing in the state constitution protecting pension abuse from reformers and lawmakers committed to eliminating it. So lawmakers can simply lift the anti-abuse language from the 2013 bill, strengthen it by banning abuses that weren’t included in the original measure, and introduce it as new legislation. That’s the kind of bi-partisan reform Republicans and Democrats can and should embrace now, while their leaders are trying to find common ground on a budget deal. It’s also a good government initiative that millions of Illinois residents who don’t benefit from pension padding would applaud, and that’s a sound state lawmakers don’t hear much these days. The legislature probably can’t eliminate or reduce the dubious benefits members of the “Padded Pension Posse” are already collecting. But Springfield can certainly stop the posse from growing any larger and inflicting even more damage on pension plans that are already teetering on the edge of the fiscal cliff. This is one posse that should stop hunting for our tax dollars. Andy Shaw is President & CEO of the Better Government Association. He can be reached at ashaw@bettergov.org. Find him on Twitter @andyshawbga.