Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Pension party line, Chicago-style

Mayor Rahm Emanuel was in Springfield on Tuesday – making his first mayoral appearance at the Statehouse to lobby on behalf of Chicago interests.
EMANUEL: Will anybody listen?

Specifically, Emanuel testified before the Illinois House committee (I wasn’t there, I watched streaming video on my laptop computer courtesy of Capitol Fax) that is reviewing measures meant to reform the way in which government funds its pension programs for government and education retirees.

EVERYBODY AGREES THERE is a mess – largely because for many years, government chose to undercut the amount of money it put into the programs, figuring it could make up the shortfall in future years.

Yet putting off this problem for so long means the shortfall has grown to so large that we’re going to have to have our state make some serious cuts, or take some other drastic actions, in order to balance things out.

But somehow, I doubt that Emanuel swayed anyone with his morning appearance before the committee.

Because all I detected from his talk was the party line that we have been hearing from the city’s legislators in recent weeks – Chicago is the real victim in all this!

THAT CONCEPT IS based on the notion that pensions for retired teachers who worked in the Chicago Public Schools are not covered by the state. Ultimately, taxes charged of city residents by the school district cover the costs.

But city residents also are state residents, which means their share of taxes cover the costs of the pensions to the retired educators, government employees and one-time elected officials who draw retirement benefits from the five programs the state oversees.

As Emanuel put it, “We want equity with the rest of the state.” He went so far as to say that for the current pension system to be maintained properly, city residents would have to face a 150 percent increase in their taxes.

“That’s a burden I refuse to put on our taxpayers,” Emanuel told the members of the House Personnel and Pensions Committee.

THESE ARE THE same state legislators who like to take up the argument, or respond to the “cause,” that says Chicago is “leeching” money off of the taxpayers across the rest of Illinois.

Which makes me wonder how many of those legislators are going to dismiss anything that Emanuel has to say as being just Chicago blather. That may be a small-minded, unrealistic, attitude for them to cop.

Insofar as what the solution to this problem is, drastic actions are going to have to be taken, and I comprehend that people are going to get hurt in the process of the state fixing its problems.

I understand why people who were planning to retire soon would hate the idea of the retirement age being raised, or having their contributions increased. Those workers are being dumped on, even though the economist-types aren’t going to want to have to take that factor into account.

OTHERS WILL WANT to use that emotional factor to undercut any solution to a real problem. Which is an attitude that cannot be allowed to prevail – although I’m not bold-enough, or knowledgeable-enough, to offer up a “solution” at this time.

That is for people far more knowledgeable than me to figure out.

But it is reality that a part of why it is going to be difficult for officials to resolve the pension funding mess is because of the regionalism that has always been a part of Illinois’ character, but has intensified in recent years to the point where some people just don’t want to listen to anyone else.

Which is too bad, because Emanuel actually had one legitimate point in saying that this is an issue that can drag everybody and everything in Illinois down.

“FAMILY BUDGETS, CORPORATE budgets, municipal budgets, and ultimately the state budget” would all be harmed if the cost of providing pensions to retirees isn’t brought under control, Emanuel claims.

I just wonder how many political people are going to want to hear it from Anybody But Rahm.


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