How retirement benefits could sink the states

Illinois is an object lesson in why firms are starting to pay more attention to the long-term fiscal prospects of communities. Early last year, the state imposed $7 billion in new taxes on residents and business, pledging to use the money to eliminate its deficit and pay down a backlog of unpaid bills (to Medicaid providers, state vendors and delayed tax refunds to businesses). But more than a year later, the state is in worse fiscal shape, with its total deficit expected to increase to $5 billion from $4.6 billion, according to an estimate by the Civic Federation of Chicago.

Rising pension costs will eat up much of the tax increase. Illinois borrowed money in the last two years to make contributions to its public pension funds. This year, under pressure to stop adding to its debt, the legislature must make its pension contributions out of tax money. That will cost $4.1 billion plus an additional $1.6 billion in interest payments on previous pension borrowings.

Business leaders are now speaking openly about Illinois’ fiscal failures. Jim Farrell, the former CEO of Illinois Toolworks who is heading a budget reform effort called Illinois Is Broke, said last year that the state is squandering its inherent advantages as a business location because “all the other good stuff doesn’t make up for the [fiscal] calamity that’s on the way.”