We’re number one! Hooray

It turns out that an Illinois Republicans’ stunt in March that aimed to get support for a state sales tax holiday seems depressingly appropriate right now. In protest of a new one percent sales tax in Cook County, some state lawmakers whipped out big foam No. 1 fingers and sarcastically highlighted what some called the highest tax burden in the nation.

But according to a report last week, Illinois has a distinction that no one should be celebrating: the worst pension debt in the nation.

While the gap between what the state owes and what the state can pay grows ever larger, more than just state employees have something to be very afraid of. Every Illinoisan who uses state services looks to be harmed.

Instead of making tough decisions decades ago, lawmakers decided to merely put off the problem. Relying on future generations to clean up one of the biggest financial messes in the country is cowardly and really gives a whole new meaning to the phrase “passing the buck.”

But since it’s unlikely every state employee will ever retire at once, this is not a ticking time bomb situation. At the moment, it seems more comparable to a black hole that’s growing bigger.

After adjusting for interest and other creative accounting measures, Illinois still has to pay $5 billion a year to the pension funds just to keep the debt from rising.

That money has to come from somewhere, and recently, it has come at the expense of higher education support, health care payments and infrastructure improvements. But more often, it’s just not coming.

The result is a state that can’t take care of its employees or itself. While it’s not surprising that the current group of lawmakers in Springfield prefer to tackle glamorous initiatives in education and health care (or do nothing at all), they should realize that they could do a lot to improve those issues’ long-term prospects by getting the pension debt under control and responsibly paying down the bill.

Otherwise, no lawmaker will even be able to afford to buy foam fingers. Although by then, the more appropriate hand gesture will be a big thumbs down.