Executive Director Reports

Pensions, promises and pythons

If only we could toss off our challenges as easily as we toss out our calendars with the arrival of the new year.

Unfortunately that’s not the way the world works – particularly here in the Land of Lincoln where politicians continue to refuse to own up to their responsibilities.

As 2012 was drawing to a close, the drumbeat to undermine the retirement security of hundreds of thousands of active and retired public employees in Illinois was only growing louder.

In his role as drum major, Pat Quinn had launched a “pension reform” website, created Squeezy the Python to symbolize the pension problem, manipulated unknowing school children, and put the entire state e-mail system at the service of his dishonest campaign to undermine the retirement security of, first, every active and retired state and university employee and, second, everyone else who is a member of a public pension plan.

It’s fitting that Quinn chose a snake to symbolize his campaign given the road he has traveled, first publicly declaring that it would be unconstitutional to cut benefits for current employees and then reversing course, seeking legislation to take a huge bite out of pension checks.

Quinn is not alone in seeking to cut pension benefits. All four legislative leaders have backed up his efforts. But the governor stands out from the crowd with his poisonous claim, designed to stoke resentments that our pensions are “extravagant.” Quinn even went so far as to equate his attempts to cut pensions with the effort to abolish slavery.

In mid-December, AFSCME, as part of the We Are One Illinois coalition of public employee unions, put forth our own plan, one that is fair, affordable and constitutional – elements not even considered by the plans put forward by Quinn or legislative leaders.

In seeking to solve a problem, the first step is to identify its source.

Virtually everyone agrees that liabilities have accrued because of the state’s failure to make its payments.

The union plan requires an ironclad guarantee that the employer makes full annual payments based upon sound actuarial guidelines.

In order to fund education, health, disability, veterans, public safety, and other vital services, the State does need revenue, but it must cease borrowing from the pension funds to pay for them. The Coalition’s plan offers a menu of some $2 billion in tax loopholes which mostly benefit large corporations and wealthy individuals. Those revenues can be used to fund these other services going forward so that the state can pay the pension fund what is owed.

Recognizing the political realities and cognizant of the public mood, the coalition unions have stated that if all other preconditions are met, current employees could be asked to pay a little more – up to 2 percent more of salary on a phased-in basis.

Pensions are more than a promise. In Illinois, they’re constitutionally guaranteed. The benefits earned by public employees are inviolable.

Yet Gov. Quinn and legislative leaders have gone so far as to propose that even current retirees be subject to the draconian cuts.

The We Are One coalition believes that the Quinn, Madigan and Cullerton pension “reform” plans – based on steep cuts to pension benefits by curtailing inflation adjustments – are unconstitutional. The coalition has retained a law firm which is already preparing a legal challenge should political leaders seek to impose the cuts they have been advocating.

There is much talk about trying to move a pension bill at the end of the current legislative session in January when leaders would try to get enough lame ducks to quack to their tune.

However, AFSCME members, active and retired, will be at the Capitol in full force along with the members of our coalition to remind legislators who have been asking us for an alternative plan that we have one.

Our plan is constitutional. It is fair to employees who have paid their share for the benefits they’ve earned. It generates revenue needed to fund vital services which have up to now been paid for by borrowing from pension funds which are running out of money. It guarantees that, going forward, the state will make its share of the pension payments.

No other plan which has surfaced in Springfield accomplishes any of these goals.

Legislators who claim they don’t want to hurt us, but that something needs to be done now, have a plan they can support.

It will require that they have the backbone to stand up to the corporate chieftains who’ll resist paying their fair share of taxes. They’ll have to stand up to their legislative leaders and to the governor who’ll come with a fistful of promises if they go his way.

We’ll need to show legislators that there are more of us than there are the pension slashers and remind those tempted by the governor’s promises that he chose a snake to symbolize his pension efforts.

We’ll do all that at the rail in the Capitol in 2013. I hope I see everyone who has an Illinois public pension there with me.