Dec. 9, 2012
The (Crystal Lake) Northwest Herald
Leading from the middle on pension reform
It's mid-December and we still have no meaningful pension reform package proposed by leadership in Springfield. Since House Speaker Mike Madigan, and to a lesser extent Gov. Pat Quinn, are in charge, that could be a blessing in disguise.
It's also a disgrace, as the pension deficit grows each day. Now it's somewhere in the neighborhood of $94 billion. The deficit growth would make a Powerball jackpot winner blush while Quinn and Democratic leaders fiddle.
Last week, it took a group of about two dozen rank-and-file members of the General Assembly to get some kind of proposal on the table to deal with the crippling financial crisis. While there may be flaws in the proposal, at least they aren't sitting idly by, waiting for legislative leadership to guide them.
While Democrats have super-majorities in both state houses, not all Democrats have the same constituents. Not all problems in the suburbs are equal in rural counties or in Chicago.
Many downstate representatives and suburban GOP legislators have similar issues with pension reform proposals that rely heavily on shifting the pension burden from the state to local school districts that suburban GOP legislators have.
Besides shifting the burden to local taxing bodies, last week's proposal brings up needed reforms, such as reducing the cost of living adjustments for retirees, raising retirement ages, and requiring greater employee contributions to the pension systems.
McHenry County lawmakers say the burden shift is a deal killer, but we can't afford to be so dismissive now. Perhaps a gradual shift is something that would satisfy the varied interests.
There also are concerns about whether cutting COLA increases would survive court challenges since the state Constitution contains language that pension benefits "shall not be diminished or impaired."
While it's responsible for legislators to be certain that they aren't approving bad laws, some drastic measures need to be taken. Short of doing nothing, it might be worth a court challenge to write a better law. Voters might even be willing to change the Constitution.
All ideas should be on the table. What about taxing pension benefits? Taxpayers paid for the salaries all along, why is it so unreasonable that pension recipients pay taxes on their benefits like anyone else?
No one is going to like every part of a package that gets the state out of a $94 billion hole - neither taxpayers nor pension recipients.
But if the General Assembly can figure out a way to cram an unpopular 67 percent income tax increase down our throats during a lame duck session, surely it can pass pension reform.
Dec. 8, 2012
The (Springfield) State Journal-Register
Rank-and-file legislators step up on pensions
There are two big unanswered questions about House Bill 6248, the latest pension restructuring plan to emerge from the Illinois General Assembly.
How much will it save? The sponsors don't know and won't until the Teachers' Retirement System, the State Universities Retirement System and the State Employees Retirement System analyze it.
Is it constitutional? The legislation includes some items that people who have studied that question closely believe will run afoul of the state constitution's prohibition against diminishing pension benefits. In particular, the legislative leaders have stayed away from capping the amount of salary a pension can be based upon for those already in the system and raising the retirement age.
The plan also does not offer public employees and retirees a choice between the current benefit system and reduced benefits in exchange for state-sponsored health care upon retirement and raises being counted toward their pensions.
Eric Madiar, Senate President John Cullerton's legal counsel and the person in state government who may have studied the constitutionality question the most thoroughly, believes offering a choice is essential if any plan is to pass muster before the state Supreme Court.
The sponsor of HB6248, Rep. Elaine Nekritz, a Northbrook Democrat, says there's no way anyone can know for sure what the Supreme Court will do. That's true, but it's also true that those that have studied it have a pretty good educated guess as to what might fly. There's no point in passing a plan that doesn't come as close as possible to being constitutional.
To her credit, Nekritz told reporters on Wednesday that adding in the choice would not be a deal breaker and that the plan she and 20 other co-sponsors introduced was a starting point for negotiations.
The real progress made on Wednesday is that 21 lawmakers showed up and said they were for something on pension reform.
"There are more people standing here today than we have had for any pension bill that's been proposed in the past," Nekritz told reporters.
Nekritz is right. She is more than one-third of the way to the 60 votes needed to pass a bill in the Illinois House, which is more than the greatest vote counter in Illinois history, Speaker Michael Madigan, has gotten so far for any pension bill.
The other positive development, often mentioned by lawmakers at the news conference, was that this bill was crafted by discussions amongst themselves, not the leaders in a back room somewhere.
"You saw there were a lot of relatively new members on this stage. This is a complicated issue and this is a big bill with a lot of things in it and a lot of suggestions that came from different places," said Rep. Daniel Biss, D-Evanston, a first-term member who is the bill's chief co-sponsor. "In order to produce the kind of comprehensive solution that has enough different ingredients to make it acceptable to a majority of the House, I think it makes sense for it to bubble up from the people who are going to have to vote for it."
That type of process has clearly taken its toll on rank-and-file members, who have grown tired of being derisively referred to as "mushrooms," which, among other things, means they're kept in the dark by those with the real power — legislative leaders, lobbyists and staff. They have asserted themselves some on the state budget in the last two fiscal years, crafting it in public committees instead of the leaders and the governor going into his office and emerging with a single bill at the end of May. Americans traditionally hate their legislatures, but maybe a member-crafted pension bill that deals with the pension problem might result in the General Assembly's approval rating ticking up a few points.
Maybe the mushrooms will pass the fair and constitutional pension bill that their leaders could not.
Dec. 6, 2012
The (Dixon) Telegraph
State parks need money? Go rob Peter
The budget for Illinois state parks has been cut to the bone. More money is needed. The Legislature's solution? Rob Peter to pay Paul.
Cash-strapped state parks in Illinois are about to receive a financial reprieve from the state Legislature.
We support more funding for state parks through the implementation of a user fee, like 43 other states already have.
The Legislature's response: Forget about admission fees. Let's just rob Peter to pay Paul.
In this case, "Peter" represents the millions of Illinois vehicle owners who will have to pay $2 more a year to renew their vehicle licenses. For people who do not have specialty plates, the fee will rise from $99 to $101.
And "Paul" represents the 324 state-owned parks, recreation areas and other sites.
Some people in the "Peter" category do visit state parks. Others do not.
Still, every "Peter" in Illinois will have to fork over extra money to assist "Paul."
Vehicle owners aren't the only "Peters" affected by the legislation.
New fees will be established for off-road recreation on state land and for commercial fishing.
All told, state parks can expect $18 million to $20 million more a year from license plate fees, and $12 million to $15 million more a year from the off-road recreation and commercial fishing fees.
Total new money raised by the new fees is estimated at $30 million to $35 million a year.
Add that to the $45 million regular annual budget (which used to be $107 million), and it sounds like a lot of money.
However, state parks have a backlog of maintenance projects estimated at $750 million because of previous budget cuts, so it could take awhile to catch up. And there are fewer workers now, 1,200 compared to 2,600 a decade ago.
State parks are a boon for Illinoisans. They also attract out-of-state tourists, but we're not aware of any provision yet to tap those wallets.
Dozens of other states have no problem charging all park visitors, including out-of-staters, an admission fee. On-your-honor user fee systems, enforced by spot checks, have worked well elsewhere.
But Illinois won't give it a try.
Robbing Peter to pay Paul is symbolic of state leaders' inability to make tough decisions on difficult problems.
The state faces much thornier problems — pension reform, budget deficits and mounting debt among them. Will tough decisions be made? Or will state leaders look for the next Peter to rob?
Our advice: Hold on to your wallets.
Dec. 8, 2012
The (Kankakee) Daily Journal
Just say no
Mel Reynolds says he's running for Congress to "finish the job."
That might just be what we should all be worried about.
Reynolds was the Congressman in Illinois' Second District from 1993 to 1995, He was convicted of criminal sexual assault for having sex with a minor. He's also been convicted of campaign fraud. President Bill Clinton commuted his sentence to time served after 30 months,
Since his sentence was commuted and he was not pardoned, he's still a convicted felon, but there is apparently no Constitutional prohibition against a convicted felon running for Congress. Under Illinois law, Reynolds even will be able to vote for himself, since he's been released from prison.
If you're keeping score, Reynolds replaced Gus Savage for the seat. Savage had to apologize for a sexual advance made to a Peace Corps Volunteer. Reynolds was followed by Jesse Jackson Jr., who has resigned for health reasons, while his attorneys negotiate with the federal government.
So, you might ask, would Reynolds have a chance? Are the voters that forgiving? We note that the Illinois State Representative expelled for reported bribery won his seat back.
Here's the reality. The primary for the Democratic seat, which is tantamount to election, might have anywhere from five to 10 contestants. It's hard to find any job. The pay is great. The work is indoors. No heavy lifting is involved.
So you might win the election with less than half the vote. Illinois has no provisions for a runoff. Jackson won the seat in a five-way Democratic primary. The last Republican gubernatorial nominee was the result of a seven-way primary. Both "winners" had less than half the vote.
There are times when Illinois must be the electoral laughingstock of the nation.
There was discussion a few years back about opening up the Illinois Constitution. We were for it then, but distinctly in the minority.
Let us say that this debacle illustrates the need for several meaningful reforms.
—Illinois should put a runoff election in place. If a winner has less than, say, 40 percent of the vote in a primary with four or more candidates, narrow the field to two, and vote again. Having someone "win" with 21 percent of the vote shifts the balance of power from the majority to a determined minority.
—Illinois voters should get the right of "recall." We shouldn't have to wait while incompetence, or corruption, is played out.
—If the law says someone is too dangerous to live next to a school (Reynolds has cycled off the sex offender list because his crime was years ago), they should also be too dangerous to vote.
We do not rule out "forgiveness." There are a dozen meaningful things Reynolds can do with the rest of his life. We are moved by those who go on to tell their tale, and repent.
But we wouldn't send him to Congress.