Gail Purkey wasn't employed by the state of Illinois long enough during the 1980s to earn a state pension. Her stint with House Speaker Michael Madigan's legislative staff, plus her time at the Illinois Arts Council, an agency chaired by Madigan's wife, Shirley, totaled less than seven years. Then she left public employment for a job with the Illinois Federation of Teachers, a statewide group that includes the Chicago Teachers Union.
Purkey never returned to state government from her private-sector job with the union. But state government hasn't forgotten her. The former IFT lobbyist and spokeswoman, now 58 and retired, collects a state pension of more than $100,000 a year. If she lives to age 78, she'll collect a total of about $3 million in benefits from the State Employees' Retirement System. This despite the fact that her final state salary was $36,800: Her pension instead is based on the average of her four highest salaries during her last 10 years with the union. That average was about ... $195,000.
Oh, Purkey also qualifies for free health coverage.
What a fabulous retirement.
"I followed what the law said," Purkey told the Tribune's Ray Long in an interview. And what law is that? As Long reported Sunday in exposing this latest Illinois pension outrage, the state stands to lavish steadily rising payments to Purkey under legislation sponsored six years ago by Speaker Madigan and his allies in the General Assembly. She is receiving $101,909 this year. Add a compounding 3 percent cost-of-living increase in January. And the January after that. And the January after ...
The law gave employees of a statewide labor organization who previously had worked in Illinois a six-month chance to rejoin the taxpayer-supported plan for state workers. A different provision in the law allowed two other IFT lobbyists to qualify for lifetime teacher pensions by working one day apiece as substitute teachers.
Purkey had to shift $666,300 into the pension fund in order to qualify for her benefits. That money, from Purkey and her union, covered employee and employer contributions, and was the equivalent of the contributions that would have been required if she had been in the pension system all along, plus interest. "What did strike me as I looked at the numbers was HOW MUCH MONEY I contributed to participate" in the pension plan, Purkey wrote in an email to the Tribune's Long. "Looking at that total really drove home to me the commitment I personally made to participate."
Is that so. Never mind that, in the first seven years after her retirement at age 56, Purkey's pension payments will top the $666,300 that she and the IFT contributed. Should she live another 20 years, that $3 million in total payouts — much of it courtesy of Illinois taxpayers — will make her contributions look like a relative pittance.
Speaker Madigan's spokesman has said that although Madigan was the bill's lead sponsor, Madigan wasn't its "chief architect." The spokesman also has said that then-Rep. Gary Hannig, D-Litchfield, tended to be Madigan's floor leader on financial bills. Hannig, who now works for Gov. Pat Quinn, has said he doesn't recall how the bill came together. We aren't surprised. Whenever Tribune reporters delve into these scummy pension favors for lawmakers' cronies, there tends to be an outbreak of amnesia.
So let's reflect on three facts that may or may not be related to Democratic lawmakers' desire to take kind care of IFT personnel during the lame-duck legislative session after the 2006 general election. According to an analysis for the Tribune by Kent Redfield, a campaign finance expert from the University of Illinois at Springfield:
•The IFT had contributed about $567,000 to Madigan, the state Democratic chairman, and his rank-and-file candidates. Democratic victories assured Madigan's continued role as speaker.
•The IFT had contributed more than $515,000 to Rod Blagojevich, who had been re-elected governor.
What can you do about this?
If your legislators were in office six years ago, be sure to ask each one how he or she voted on this pension bill. A faraway look and anything like "I don't remember" attests to more of that convenient memory loss. Trust us, your legislators did check their voting record on this bill — if they didn't know it already — after they saw Sunday's expose.
You also can be incensed. Once again, a journalist looking where many legislators thought no one ever would look has shown you how your taxes become your lawmakers' slush fund.
Then, if the notion of a public pension for a private-sector union lobbyist upsets you, you can (a) plead helplessness or (b) exact consequences on the many legislators, and their leaders, who perpetrated these schemes.
Keep all of this — Mr. Madigan's bill, Ms. Purkey's pension — in mind as you ponder the Nov. 6 general election. Early voting starts Oct. 22.