March 6, 2014 By: Mark Glennon
Springfield is taking its time about it, but soon, hopefully, it will legislate reforms of city and local pensions, including Chicago’s, which are in desperate shape. If real reform is to happen, both President John Cullerton, head Democrat in the Illinois Senate, and Minority Leader Christine Radogno, chief of the Senate Republicans, need to face up to just how bad things are.
Let’s first be clear. Christine Radogno is no John Cullerton, and Radogno’s failure to see pension realities certainly doesn’t imply equivalence with Cullerton. Cullerton is a walking composite of the worst legislators who broke our state. Nationally recognized for saying there’s “no crisis” in Illinois, most readers here know that’s just how he has legislated, so there’s no need to summarize his career of fiscal mayhem.
But on pensions Ms. Radogno has come up short, too. In support of the reform bill passed in December for state pensions she was emphatic that it fixed them entirely and will take them to being 100% properly funded. The pension bill would “stabilize the state’s finances,” she said. “This solves the problem. It really does.”
Who else went that far? Only Governor Quinn, to my knowledge. Even House Speaker Michael Madigan had been careful to say, regarding each pension bill that came along, that further reform would be needed. Why would she say otherwise? The new pension bill officially cut only about $25 billion out of the total of $97 billion, and the actual hole using real numbers is over twice that according to Moody’s, the ratings service. Eliminating that remaining liability relies simply on a schedule to pay it off later — can kicking, in other words. Pretend and extend. Pretend the problem is less severe than it is and extend the date to deal with it.
Claiming ‘problem solved’ just makes it all the harder to accomplish further reforms. Painful legislation gets passed only if the public is first acclimated to how bad things are. That’s essential. Ms. Radogno isn’t doing that.
Perhaps worse, she vehemently attributed opposition to the infamous “guaranty” provisions in the pension bill to political grandstanding in the coming governor’s election. In fact, objections to the guaranty arose as soon as drafts of them first appeared — we, too, screamed about it here — before the race for governor took shape and candidates announced.
She made a similar mistake in the past. In 2010 Illinois passed pension reform for new hires. She and other supporters badly overstated the impact of the bill, which is many years away and did nothing to address the unfunded liability. Today, she still brings up those reforms in connection with the unfunded liability, sometimes seeming to suggest that the liability goes away as older workers retire. It doesn’t.
Mr. Cullerton and Ms. Radogno appeared at a question and answer event last Friday, sponsored by Wintrust Bank at the Chicago Club, and they used the the tired script they’ve kept to for several years. Cullerton spends much of his time explaining how things aren’t nearly as bad as everybody says, though he did use the word “crisis” this time. He goes on to describe, rather alarmingly, what a constructive relationship he has with Radogno. I’ve seen him use that same script for at least four years. Radogno repeated her claim that last year’s pension bill “solved the problem” at the state level.
I would add, however, that she gave an articulate, well-informed outline of her differences with Cullerton on many other issues.
What’s frightening is that the same script apparently is about to be used on the state’s 650 other pensions, including Chicago’s — which are in even worse shape than the state’s. Reform of those pensions requires state legislation, and Cullerton has written that he’d like to model their reform on the same sham non-reform bill he proposed last year for state pensions. Radogno presumably will support something similar to the bill that passed for the state pensions, the bulk of which just kicks the unfunded can of liability down the road.
It’s too late to use that script again. Chicago and many other local units of Illinois government are burning. Nobody can expect John Cullerton to do the right thing unless he’s forced to, making it all the more important that Ms. Radogno see the fire, yell “fire,” and act accordingly.