Kadner: Create a crisis and save the day
By Phil Kadner firstname.lastname@example.org December 3, 2013 10:46PM
Illinois Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago, smiles as pension legislation passes while on the Senate floor at the Illinois State Capitol Tuesday, Dec. 3, 2013 in Springfield Ill. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman)
Updated: January 5, 2014 6:32AM
Listening to the live debate on pension reform in the Illinois House illustrated exactly what’s wrong with the state government.
Oh, this is such a hard thing to do, I heard lawmakers say over and over.
We worked so hard. We worked very hard. No one ever told me when I ran for office I would have to work.
All right, the last one is my invention but implied in the comments from the House floor.
So now we have pension reform in Illinois. I’m not sure what that means. Heck, most of the legislators who voted aren’t sure.
I heard one legislator say that he and other state representatives voting on the measure weren’t part of the mistakes of the past and shouldn’t be held liable for them.
He was referring to the roughly $100 billion pension liability that Illinois faces because for decades the governors and legislators simply refused to make the state’s contribution into the pension funds as required by law.
Then that lawmaker said it was time to pass pension reform to protect the retirement systems for state workers in the future and to put the state on sound financial footing.
An organization representing all the unionized state employees would eventually denounce the legislation as a “dark day for (Illinois) citizens and public servants.”
Another legislator, a woman, regretted the fact that her colleagues did not have more time to study the proposal and get figures on whether it will do what its supporters claim it will.
Well, the Legislature could have passed a pension reform bill two years ago, or a year ago. Everyone in Illinois knows how dire the financial situation has become. While the House did pass a version of pension reform previously, the Senate did not.
So it was infighting among elected officials that delayed the process, that caused this to be a rush job, just as it was the actions of our legislators that caused the pension crisis.
Hard work that.
Instead of putting state money into the pension systems, our elected leaders, Republicans and Democrats, for nearly 30 years used those funds for other purposes.
And even while doing that, they failed to adequately fund public education, causing property tax bills to soar.
And when the pension systems faced financial strain due to the Legislature’s shift of pension money for other uses, Republicans blamed it all on greedy union employees.
A lot of people like that argument. And there certainly are instances of state retirees earning pensions of $100,000 or more, an outrageous circumstance created by politicians who saw no reason to control the system.
Blaming the employees was the easy thing to do, like taking the pension money to pay other bills. And easy is what lawmakers like.
Now, like a student who has failed to do his homework and missed most of his classes, final exams arrived and legislators were forced to cram for the test. Wow! This is hard.
The fact that lawmakers had little time to study the pension reform bill, about three days, and the public was kept in the dark is nothing new in Illinois. That’s the way key decisions and important bills always get passed in this state.
It’s a terrible way to do the public’s business. But that’s the way it is.
That’s not to say legislators don’t care. Many do, on both sides of the aisle, despite what the public thinks.
Some Democrats, like state Sen. Toi Hutchinson, D-Olympia Fields, voted against the bill because they believe it’s really a bad deal for retired employees. Hutchinson said the legislation “deals with peoples’ very livelihoods, the retirement benefits of thousands of hardworking Illinoisans, and I cannot support a law that fails to take this truth into account.”
State Sen. Bill Brady, R-Bloomington, who is running in the GOP primary election for governor, backed the bill knowing it isn’t likely to help him with conservative voters.
“Pension reform is a vote for fiscal stability and bringing jobs back to Illinois,” Brady said.
I think Brady and Hutchinson were both speaking the truth.
But I suspect that most Illinois residents today don’t much care about them or the pension reform bill. There have been so many lies, so much corruption, combined with incompetence, that taxpayers in this state trust no one who holds elective office.
No matter how broke the state is, there’s always money to hire somebody’s buddy, relative or political operative.
No matter how much money the pension systems need, there are still tax breaks available for corporate political players.
Still, there’s not much sympathy around for government employees. They have health insurance. A pension. Plenty of vacation days and early retirement options.
The sort of things that American workers used to brag about a few decades ago. The stuff that created the great middle class, which drove the American economy.
But we can’t afford it any more. So everyone should work until they drop, and if that’s as a Wal-Mart greeter at 85, so be it.
I heard one House member say during debate on the pension bill that a government employee begged her, literally pleaded, for a 401(k) option instead of a pension plan.
Does that employee have any idea of how much money you would have to save to come up with the equivalent of a pension that pays $40,000 a year for life after 60? Well, if you expect to live until 80, that would be $800,000.
Hey, maybe the employee was making $150,000 a year or knows the stock market will never again collapse.
The one true thing about pension reform is that once the law is signed by the governor, there will be a lawsuit challenging its constitutionality.
And during the House debate, it became clear that legislators did not touch the judicial pension system for that reason.
It’s always about politics in Illinois and never about reform.