President Brenda Russsell’s 2019 Annual Report

I was elected your President of the UIC SUAA chapter six years ago.  This will be my last Annual Report so it seems an appropriate time to review some of the highlights of my tenure since 2013.  Our UIC chapter membership peaked at 1650 during the legal fights in 2013 but has dropped about 50/year as we won those cases.  It is now 1500 in 2019. I will end by reporting what we did in the past year and discussing issues lying ahead for SUAA. 

2013 was a very active year for SUAA.  The new health insurance plans were introduced with the Medicare Advantage Plan enrollment in Fall 2013 for the first time.  Over 350 people attended our event on health insurance.  Eventually, information and explanations were provided but it was chaotic and troublesome for retirees who depend on top quality health insurance provided as a benefit.  These fears were compounded by passage of state legislation (SB 1313, PA 97695) that would have charged us for our health insurance premium.  SUAA and other parties filed a brief in 2013 with the Illinois Supreme Court known as the “Kanerva” case. The Supreme Court ruled in 2014 in our favor based on the Pension Protection clause of the 1970 Illinois Constitution, which states: “Membership in any pension or retirement system of the state, any unit of local government or school district, or any agency or instrumentality thereof, shall be an enforceable contractual relationship, the benefits of which shall not be diminished or impaired.”

The State still continued its attempt to balance its fiscal woes at the expense of state pensioners.  A major bill (SB 1, PA 98599) proposed cuts to the 3% Automatic Annual Increase, AAI (aka COLA), as well as many other items.  In 2015, the Illinois Supreme Court also ruled this law unconstitutional, based on the 1970 Pension clause.

During those few years, we realized that we needed to be a reliable source of information and action.  We held frequent events, including town halls and brown bags, and our membership soon peaked at 1650.  One major initiative was to initiate our popular newsletter, with John Cepek as editor, in 2014.  Tragically, in 2016 Cepek died of a fall and head injury while on vacation in Croatia.  Our chapter initiated a GoFundMe campaign, which was effective in providing some initial financial relief.  Sonya Booth graciously stepped in as succeeding editor.

Our pensions and health benefits survived the legal challenges but the State’s fiscal situation remains dire.  Politicians of both parties cite “Pension Reform” as the solution.  95% of the pension budget is wasted on debt service because the State failed to pay its required contribution over the years.  I spent time with the politicians and the general public trying to get that message across.  The SUAA Legislative Platform supports increased revenue.  However, the Democrats allowed the sunset clause to kick in at the end of 2014, which automatically dropped the income tax from 5% to 3.75% in January 2015 when Rauner was elected governor.  A two-year budget standoff ensued between Rauner and Madigan.  The State was reduced to slashing all non-discretionary items, and Higher Education took a huge hit.  This came on top of prior slashes: between 2008 and 2015, Illinois cut per-student Higher Education funding by over 50%.  SUAA is a strong advocate for Higher Education at the university and community college level, and our chapter supports those efforts.

Major Events in 2018-2019

Fall Forum: October 29, 2018 was held in the Student Center West with about 150 attendees.  The title was “Our Pensions: Changes, Choices, Funding.”  The panelists were Dean Jeffrey R. Brown, Gies College of Business, UIUC; Lee A. Bridges, CFP; Retirement Specialist, State Universities Retirement System of Illinois; and John Prochaska, CPA (ret); Retirement Educator, Social Security Issues.  SUAA Executive Director Linda Brookhart also joined us.

Post-Election Analysis: Nov. 16, 2018 by Dick Simpson, Professor of Political Science at UIC, presented an analysis of the election results, including Pritzker’s election as governor and other races..

Winter Holiday Luncheon: Dec. 14, 2018  The annual holiday luncheon was held at the Greek Islands Restaurant in Greektown, Chicago.

BrownBag Panel discussion on the Tier II Pensions: Feb. 27, 2019  Panelists were Larry Curtis, employer services manager for the State Universities Retirement System (SURS) and Sarah Wetmore, vice president and research director at the Civic Federation.  More than 100 people — most of them current employees — heard the bad news about Tier II SURS pensions, the retirement system for employees hired after Jan. 1, 2011, at a brownbag presentation.  They also learned that options to improve Tier II are limited although SUAA is considering a future legal challenge.

Annual Meeting:  April 1, 2019.  A lecture entitled “Lifespan vs Healthspan” was presented by S. Jay Olshansky, UIC Professor of Epidemiology.  About 50 attended, and a lively discussion followed his talk.

Issues ahead: 

  1. Continue to protect our pensions and benefits. SUAA continues to be a network for advocacy on how to approach legislators effectively. We will fight any attempts at introducing a Tier III system. 
  1. Follow the Tier II pension situation closely. We will engage in legal suits that may be filed by SUAA once aggrieved Tier II retirees are identified. Since Tier II began in January 2011, this type of action is not expected until 2021, when the earliest ten-year vesting period will occur.
  1. Membership: New membership outreach will focus on current employees who are affected by Tier II pensions. We hope to recruit more UIC employees, especially those nearing retirement. Retention of existing members needs time and attention too.
  1. Health insurance is an ongoing concern of mine. This is a tricky situation, given the greed of the US Medical Industry and the desire for Illinois to cut those costs. We will need to be sure that insurance stays free, and the quality stays high.  Obamacare (2010) banned higher costs for people under 65 with pre-existing conditions but most people do not realize that elders are not protected.  As things change on the national scene, I expect to see ramifications, including attempts at weakening the group plans that SURS offers retirees.
  2. We know that timely communications or facts and reliable analysis are essential.  We continue to send out two major newsletters a year plus topical briefings.  We post on our website, Facebook, and use the email lists to keep you informed about SUAA and better connected to the UIC community.

My thanks for all the many who helped me over the past six years

I could not have done this without all of the board members over six years, past and present but too numerous to name.  These are dedicated, co-operative, and skilled people who donate their time to serve all of the people who (will) have a SURS pension.

Special kudos:

Merrill Gassman: Webmaster.  He updates and maintains our website and YouTube video channel.  He does this in a timely  fashion and with perfection every time.

Sonya Booth: Newsletter editor. She provides accurate information to you with monthly electronic briefings that include news from UIC.

Merrill and Sonya together maintain and post on our website, Facebook, and the email lists to keep you informed about SUAA developments and better connected to our UIC community.

Karen Sherman and Deb Matthews: for making the arrangements for reservations and food for all of our events throughout my six years.

Arlene Norsym: Secretary and wise friend.

Lary Kloc: Treasurer and unsung hero of his magic with numbers.

Marelet Kirda and Kathy Irving: Our enthusiastic new membership duo.  Following in the footsteps of others.