Business owners urged to talk to lawmakers

Published: Friday, Jan. 11, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT

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GENEVA – Doug Whitley doesn’t expect pension reform to come to Illinois anytime soon unless lawmakers get serious about making tough decisions.

Whitley, president and CEO of the Illinois Chamber of Commerce, spoke to members from the Geneva, St. Charles and Elgin chambers of commerce Thursday at a state chamber update breakfast at Eagle Brook Country Club in Geneva.

Pension reform took up a large portion of his keynote speech about how to make Illinois a better place for business. He said the state has almost $100 billion in unfunded pension promises and is taking in only $30 billion in revenues to offset it.

Whitley said early retirements, cost-of-living increases and a broader scope of pension recipients has stressed the pension system over the years.

He praised lawmakers for making tough decisions a few years ago when they amended pension contributions for new pension-eligible employees. He said while those workers were entitled to pension deals that became more lucrative throughout the years, the state simply can’t afford it.

“As a taxpayer, all of us are going to be paying a lot more than that person paid [into a pension],” he said, reminding the crowd of about 90 people that state workers don’t get Social Security. “We have the worst public employee pension system in the country by a long shot.”

Whitley predicts the pension issue will continue to downgrade the state’s bond rating, which has already been downgraded 10 to 12 times in the past three years.

He said for business owners to make a difference, they need to reach out to local and statewide lawmakers.

“Continue to go to fundraisers for our local officials, but consider supporting those in other parts of the state,” he said, noting that this part of the state is not the problem.

He challenged employers to ask lawmakers how the Illinois business community can be prosperous and why it’s so hard to do business in Illinois.

Whitley said he believes Gov. Pat Quinn is being proactive in solving the pension issue, but some of Quinn’s tactics haven’t worked. He expects the state’s deficit and unfunded spending will be just as bad in two years as it is now, which probably will be an issue in the next gubernatorial election.

As far as what local chambers of commerce can do to make the state more business friendly, Whitley suggested chambers identify their roles in their respective business communities and urged chambers to get involved with public policy.

“From my perspective, I want local chambers to be a part of the political process,” he said.

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Jan Schlictmann at a Geneva law firm.

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