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Miller: Alarmist Fahner pushed aside regarding pension reform

Updated: December 20, 2012 6:16AM



For the past few years, the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago has been one of the most feared participants in the state’s pension reform debate.

Ty Fahner, a former Illinois attorney general who heads the Civic Committee, managed to convince both political parties of the need to compete for a position of favor with him and his influential group.

When Fahner and the committee ended up siding with the House Democrats in May and endorsing their pension reform plan, including the controversial cost shift from the state to school districts, the House Republicans were furious.

They had been assiduously courting Fahner and figured that because the Civic Committee consists of top Chicago business leaders, they’d be the natural ally of choice.

Not to mention that Fahner also formed a political action committee (“We Mean Business”) to back up his word. Everybody wanted that money, so the PAC gave his position additional strength.

But those days appear to be behind us, at least for now. Fahner’s histrionics last week over what he claimed was an “unfixable” pension problem have all but cut him out of the statehouse mix.

“He’s made himself irrelevant,” said one top Democratic official who’s intimately involved with pension reform.

In a memo to Civic Committee members, Fahner wrote that “the pension crisis has grown so severe that it is now unfixable. There simply won’t be enough money” to pay pensions for young teachers just starting out.

But then Fahner constructed a bizarre dichotomy by both claiming the problem to be completely unfixable while simultaneously demanding specific changes to the state’s pension systems. He said four things had to be done “just to slow the bleeding and reduce the size of the financial burden Illinois taxpayers must bear.”

Those four items included eliminating annual cost-of-living raises for pensioners, instituting a pension salary cap, increasing the retirement age to 67 and shifting the teachers’ pension costs to school districts and universities.

Because he said there was no real fix, there’s little to no use in negotiating with Fahner now because any solution the General Assembly comes up with will be dismissed by him as wholly inadequate.

Legislative thinking goes like this: Why bend over backward to accommodate someone who will never admit that you did the right thing? There’s absolutely no political or legislative advantage to dealing with the guy.

Making matters worse, Fahner refused to disclose the actuarial data upon which he based his dire projection. That has led to more than one suggestion behind the scenes that Fahner may have cooked the books to arrive at his striking conclusion.

The Teachers’ Retirement System released a statement last week, saying that Fahner’s conclusions were wrong based on its actuarial data. That statement just fueled the flames of suspicion.

So it’s little wonder that neither of the Republican legislative leaders have jumped to Fahner’s defense. House Minority Leader Tom Cross’ office was silent, and Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno continued to call for a balanced, comprehensive pension solution.

Fahner wasn’t with them before and can’t be placated now, so he’s off the invite list.

The Senate Democrats were even harsher, issuing a statement from their attorney that ripped Fahner’s arguments into tiny shreds.

Fahner had earlier backed a “comprehensive reform” plan introduced by Republicans that would cut the state’s unfunded pension liabilities by $3 billion to $5 billion. It was so severe that just about everybody considered it unconstitutional.

The Senate Democrats’ attorney, Eric Madiar, noted in his response to Fahner that the Democratic proposal now on the table cuts the same amount from the unfunded liabilities — a plan that Fahner now calls “insufficient” and “token.”

Only the Chicago Tribune’s editorial board, whose often ill-informed catcalls about pension reform make Fahner look downright moderate, attempted to come to his defense. The editorial page claimed that Fahner didn’t really mean that the problem was “mathematically” unfixable, but that it was unfixable because of a lack of political will.

That’s a misreading. Fahner clearly stated in his memo to the Civic Committee membership that even the reform measure he demanded would merely “slow the bleeding” and “minimize the long-term damage” to the system.

Either way, few at the statehouse will listen much to the Tribune editorial board in light of the election outcomes. The paper’s endorsed candidates and positions were almost thumped harder than the GOP.

Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and CapitolFax.com.



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