Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s recent proposal to reduce professional fees and increase organized investments had several University employees worried about the fate of their retirement plans.
The suggestion called for the merging of the State Universities Retirement System with the retirement systems for teachers, lawmakers, state employees and judges into a single fund to be controlled by the Illinois State Board of Investment.
Although a drastic measure to some, SIUC Chancellor Walter Wendler pointed out that sometimes drastic measures are necessary.
“I understand and appreciate the need to find efficiencies in our system, and I believe the governor has the long term needs of the state in mind,” Wendler said.
The proposal was made two weeks ago during a private meeting with the representatives from the Illinois Education Association and the Illinois Federation of Teachers. The major incentives for such a merge were that a single organized group could conduct coordinated investments and the cost of professional fees could be reduced by up to $10 million.
Despite the implied sense of organization and the potential for money saved, some people felt that lumping these very different groups of professionals and their retirement plans together would not have been in the employees’ best interests.
Jim Hunsaker, employee benefits manager at SIUC, said the worst-case scenario would have resulted in a sharp decrease in the quality of service offered to University employees.
“SURS has always been very stable in its management of employee retirement plans,” Hunsaker said. “I would be concerned at how things would be managed in merging so many different sets of policies and procedures.”
Lucille Lasley, secretary for the director of graduate studies in mass communications, said very little information was offered to the public to approve such a major decision.
“We’re talking about people’s retirement, something some people have worked all of their lives for,” Lasley said. “The governor didn’t give enough good sound reasoning for such a merge, and this makes me feel like this was a move to address the deficits of the state, not the best interests of state employees.”
Hunsaker agrees with the idea that the state deficit is at the forefront of the proposal.
There was also concern that a sense of control would be lost if the retirement plans of state employees were managed by the Board of Investment as opposed to an organization more in tune with employees’ needs.
“Once they start opening our retirement up for somebody other than SURS to make changes with it, I feel it becomes easy to lose control of a very important fund,” Lasley said.
Leo Gher, associate professor of radio and television, agrees that the retirement fund would not have the same value if control changes hands.
In the past, employees have been able to have direct input to the entities that were managing employee retirement funds. While Gher says the power structure would shift if such a proposal ever goes through, he could not say if it would be positive or negative.
“I’ll tell you this,” Gher said. “The state has been underfunding our pensions for some time now in order to make budget. But you have to see that since they’re the piper, they get to call the tune.”
Hunsaker mentioned there is an e-mail campaign still circulating encouraging employees to withhold their support of the proposal and others like it. He also said it is too early to tell if the state employees are fighting an uphill battle.
“The state of things today may be completely different from the way things are tomorrow,” he said. “We need to just hope that University employees will not lose the quality of service they’re entitled to.”
A representative from SURS could not be reached for comment despite repeated attempts.
Reporter Bertie Holmes can be reached at [email protected]