Inexcusable errors by a leading commentator.
By: Mark Glennon*
Prominent journalists usually do at least a little homework before publishing opinion articles, but sometimes, none at all. Consider John McCarron’s piece published this week in the Chicago Tribune under the headline Cullerton’s New Idea to Save Pensions. Mr. McCarron is a long-time leading editorial figure in Illinois, a WTTW regular, and winner of the “prestigious Peter Lisagor Award” for journalism, he says in his bio.
First, Mr. McCarron says Senate President John Cullerton “appears to be scoring higher on the credibility meter” because Cullerton warned everyone last year that the state Supreme Court would strike down the 2013 pension bill, which now seems likely in light of the court’s recent Kanerva decision. We’d be better off, Mr. McCarron says, had Illinois instead passed Cullerton’s bill, which he and Cullerton say would have avoided constitutional problems by cleverly offering pensioners a choice: Either accept reduction in pension benefits or give up subsidized healthcare benefits.
In fact, however, because Kanerva ruled that healthcare benefits themselves are constitutionally protected just like pension benefits, pensioners could now ignore Cullerton’s bill had it passed and keep both their scheduled pension benefits and healthcare subsidy. Senator Cullerton’s bill would now be meaningless. Is that too much for us to expect Mr. McCarron to understand? Aside from that, Cullerton’s bill, which he put together with support from unions, wouldn’t have made much difference had there been no Kanerva decision. It would have shaved just $6 to $15 billion (depending on who you believe) off the unfunded state pension liability of $97 billion (assuming you believe that official, i.e., phony, number).
Most importantly, the primary point of Mr. McCarron’s piece is that John Cullerton now has an ingenious new idea to save the pensions: Offer pensioners a choice between accepting a pension benefit reduction and foregoing pay increases. That’s “new”? Really, Mr. McCarron? That’s been discussed for many months by people closely following the pension crisis. Bruce Rauner has been saying expressly since he entered the race that a new governor alone has the power to renegotiate contracts with state workers — not just on pay raises but on everything outside of pensions. That’s exactly why unions fear him as they do. It’s entirely clear that the state could condition pay raises or any other employment terms on acceptance of pension reform. The premise of privatization, now being considered by some municipalities, is that they can simply fire public employees if pension reform isn’t achieved and privatize their services.
For good measure, Mr. McCarron throws in a smug shot at supporters of stronger pension reform, like the Commercial Club of Chicago and Civic Federation, calling them “conservative savants.” Weren’t they the ones who warned that Illinois is broke long ago, not Mr. McCarron or Senator Cullerton, who was nationally ridiculed for saying Illinois has “no crisis” with its pensions?
Credit Mr. McCarron for disclosing that Cullerton is an old friend from high school, but fuller disclosure would been have something like this: “I’ve made no effort to find out what the hell I’m writing about.”
*Mark Glennon is founder of WirePoints