By: Mark Glennon*

Misleading media are a primary cause of Illinois’ fiscal crisis, we often say here, for the simple reason that democracy doesn’t work without fair, accurate reporting.

This past week we had two examples. Together, they provide a case study in how false narratives take root, as we see the world, so let’s take a close look.

The first was by Greg Hinz in Crain’s under the headline, “The surprising sound of pension partisans agreeing for once.”

“Left, center and right are singing a similar tune,” says the article, on a core idea for pension reform championed by the union-backed CTBA, the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability. They call it “reamortization,” which is really just putting more money into pensions sooner, flattening out the ever-increasing schedule of contributions taxpayers now face, and kicking the can by lowering the long-term funding target to just 70 percent. Governor-elect Pritzker has said he’s seriously considering that.

Most everybody seems to be on board with the CTBA’s plan – that’s the key impression the article gives.

Specifically, Hinz refers to a new book to be publicly released January 1 titled The New Chicago Way by Ed Bachrach and Austin Berg. Bachrach is founder of The Center for Pension Integrity and Berg writes for the Illinois Policy Institute. Both are intense critics of defined benefit pensions and both are right of center on fiscal matters. In other words, they’re generally in the same camp as us at Wirepoints – “flat-earthers,” Hinz calls us (which I’ll come back to).

“Is this about the same book I read?” That was my initial reaction to his article. The notion that Bachrach and Berg are even remotely on the same page as the CTBA and Pritzker is crazy. In fact, they don’t even agree on that single point about amortization schedule on which Hinz focused.

Yes, Hinz said they differ about how to fund pension payments, but they have profoundly different views on all the biggest issues. Bachrach and Berg would freeze defined benefit pension accruals entirely and amend the constitutional protection clause – both abhorrent to the CTBA. The 288 pages of their book brim with other harsh medicine they want delivered before putting more money into pensions. Only with those reforms will Chicagoans stick around and pay for those pension debts, they emphasize. In stark contrast, the CTBA and public unions want more money faster and no reforms.

Importantly, there is significant agreement emerging on a different topic. That’s to follow Arizona’s example and amend the state’s constitutional pension protection clause. It has now been endorsed by the Chicago Tribune, Rahm Emanuel, the Civic Federation, the Illinois Policy Institute, us and Crain’s own editorial board. Hinz ignored that emerging consensus, however.

Which brings us to the second article, Rich Miller’s on that subject of a constitutional amendment. Like his other weekly articles, it was widely syndicated around the state.

Miller lays out why an amendment simply isn’t in the cards. His reasons are mostly political. With a 3/5 vote of the General Assembly being required for an amendment and the public unions having the influence they do on Pritzker and the legislative supermajority, there’s little chance for amending the pension protection clause.

True enough, but why aren’t an amendment and other reforms politically feasible in Illinois? Partly because of articles just like Miller’s.

Politics becomes policy for political reporters. “To the carpenter, the whole world is wood,” as the saying goes. If it’s not politically feasible, move along. Nothing to discuss here, as many political reporters see the world. The headline on his story, at least in the Chicago Sun-Times, became “Arizona-style pension fix won’t work in Illinois.” Won’t happen morphed into won’t work. It’s self-fulfilling.

Politicians fall into it, too. If it won’t win you votes it must be a stupid idea – that’s what elected office does to their brains. It’s a version of the Stockholm Syndrome, as others have described what ails Illinoisans. That’s when hostages begin to trust and respect their captors. The establishment tells you how it will be, you accept that’s how it should be.

We’re sometimes criticized here for offering ideas that aren’t politically viable, but we know they often aren’t. Yet. We didn’t just fall off the truck. There’s a longer game that must be played.

The second problem with Miller’s article is harder to justify. It’s about another of his reasons why an amendment won’t happen. “It does not appear that a pension payment ‘doomsday’ is soon upon us,” he says. “Annual state pension payments will increase an average of $300 million a year over the next 10 years. That’s a lot of money, but it’s still fiscally manageable.”

Miller has to know that misses the point. It’s what Chicago and Illinois are not putting into their pensions that’s the problem, causing the unfunded liability to surge year after year. Miller’s own pension expert, who goes by RNUG on his site, often explains why annual contributions are billions of dollars short of even covering interest that effectively accrues on unfunded pension liabilities. And Miller entirely ignores healthcare benefits for public retirees, which alone add a stunning 50% to the taxpayer liability, and it’s entirely unfunded.

With articles like that, it’s no wonder so many Illinois voters think our fiscal crisis is nothing a little tax increase won’t solve.

Greg Hinz and Rich Miller

Put the Hinz and Miller articles together. Ask yourself what would be the takeaway for the average reader. It’s that consensus is emerging on the CTBA-Pritzker approach to pensions, and that competing, right-of-center ideas won’t work and aren’t needed.

We say that’s a false narrative. You judge for yourselves.

Here’s how Hinz described us fiscal realists, as we like to call ourselves (though I’ll presume he was being facetious):

…flat-earthers, the folks who favor government bankruptcy and want to slash or, better yet, eliminate benefits and/or amend the state constitution to make government retirees just as cash-poor as those in the private sector who no longer can rely on a defined-benefit pension.

Every assertion in that is false, except I kinda like “flat-earther” label. It conjures an image of us saying Illinois is about to go over the edge, while others go ‘round and ‘round spinning their happy tales of an easy route to riches on a different continent. This time, there’s no easy route.

*Mark Glennon is founder of Wirepoints.

 

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Andrew Szakmary
1 year ago

I am not a huge fan of that part of the CTBA plan that wants to cut the long-term funding goal from 90% to 70%, but 70%, or even the current 40%, is a lot better than Social Security, wherein the funding level is considerably lower and is projected, by its own trustees, to be zero by 2034. If the state keeps making the contributions it is making currently as a percentage of its revenues, then I doubt that the funding level will ever reach zero – especially given the tier 2 changes in 2011. Those of you making dire… Read more »

nixit
1 year ago

I’m not sure comparing an insurance plan/welfare tax managed by a governmental entity that can print money is the best comparison to our state pension.

When the pension funding level reaches zero, you’ll still get your pension, it’ll just be pay-as-you-go. You may have to fight your way through all the laid-off professors, teachers, and other public servants standing on your front lawn holding pitch forks who lost their jobs so the state could pay your pension. I’d suggest direct deposit.

ed s
1 year ago

I wish I could remember where I read this but a lot of the CFax’s subscribers came from many of the State offices. To me that sounded like tax dollars being spent on political purposes. I did question it and was more or less told that each department has to know about what the other departments are doing blah blah etc blah blah.
That is just another example of the mess Illinois is in…tax dollars are shuffled to a publication that protects the very people responsible for the problems of Illinois.

NB-Chicago
1 year ago

Agree, Millers is no different than Martire–he’s a paid hack. on the other hand Cool-Aid Peddlers to the lib-tard base like–Hinze, all the folks at ST, WTTW are all such committed left hypocts trying real hard to be non-partizan ( I realize they are all is some type of private sect db and many there spouse and family are gigged up in the machine). But you can’t espouse a berrnie sanders fantasy world for all but then in reality support a dem machine that only provides a berrnie sanders upper income deals with gaurenteed starwars benefits to the few madigan… Read more »

Mark Thoman
1 year ago

Heh. Miller early on touted WP’s level-headed data analysis. Wonder if that opinion will hold.

nixit
1 year ago

The negative votes are good indicators of cross-traffic from capitolfax. Welcome!

Almost forgot to ask this year…where’s the Wirepoints Holiday Party?

John Bond
1 year ago

I think all of you are nothing but a bunch of whiners who want to stomp their feet and hold their breath because no one buys into the nonsense you try to peddle. And you’ve taken the very “Trump-esqe” view of things by now blaming the media. It’s not that people might disagree with you. It’s that they are stooges who simply are misled by the media.

Buh-bye
1 year ago
Reply to  John Bond

The hordes leaving Illinois certainly believe the truth. The ratings agencies certainly believe the truth. The residents of Quincy, Peoria, Rockford who are paying higher property taxes certainly believe the truth. The only ones who don’t believe are the math deniers who claim that 1+1=4 and therefore all we need is to sell some weed, play some blackjack, and take just a little more in taxes from a handful of bond traders.

Illinois Entrepreneur
1 year ago
Reply to  John Bond

I know I’m going to regret this, but I see a shiny thing and I want to play with it.

So, “John,” please do tell us, what is the “nonsense” that’s being peddled? All I see are well written articles with factual evidence and common sense conclusions.

Also, are you biased as a public union employee who directly benefits from the dollars that I pay towards your salary and pension? It’s good for me to know, because I suspect that you argue so passionately, if only because…you are literally paid for it.

Mr_Common_Sense
1 year ago
Reply to  John Bond

John, tell us how Illinois is going to pay those ridiculous, obscene and unsustainable pensions. Illinois is losing population everyday. Last time I checked, taxpayers are needed to pay taxes to fund pension accounts.

Would you support a wall to keep people in Illinois?

Mark M
1 year ago
Reply to  John Bond

John, you could really help out here. Your narrative doesn’t provide any insight into the problem. Moody’s estimates the state pension hole to be $250B – a number that makes common sense when one observed stock market performance of late (more sensical than the State’s $133B number). On top of that there is a $75B health care liability for state personnel. If everything goes well and more people don’t leave the State, in a good year the State takes in $40B or so a year, and every year the pension debt and health care obligations grow, and the State also… Read more »

nixit
1 year ago

“Politics becomes policy for political reporters.” Spot on. It ain’t nuclear engineering, yet is treated as such.

I object to Hinz’ take on the “flat-earthers”. Notice the extreme language: “slash” and “eliminate” and “cash-poor”. Allow me to re-phrase:

…scorched-earthers, the folks who favor unbridled government expansion and want to slash or, better yet, eliminate taxpayer savings and/or amend the state constitution to take even more retirement savings from working families when these people require more protection from taxation as they can no longer rely on the same generous defined-benefit pension as their public sector counterparts.

Illinois Entrepreneur
1 year ago
Reply to  nixit

I love it. It’s always funny to me when reporters get indignant with people accusing them of biased reporting (which Hinz is very defensive about). The reporter will make it appears as if we have a reading comprehension problem, while they completely pretend that the hyperbolic adjectives have no bearing on the tone of the report. They will assert that you are a right-wing nut job before accepting that they may have slanted the piece…just a little…by adapting their style to conform to their bias. The buzz word they were using a couple months ago was “seized.” “Republicans seized on….”… Read more »

Rick
1 year ago

I’m so glad I already downsized my large home with ridiculous taxes for a townhome that I got at a flip it price. When things start to go real bad I won’t have to worry about unloading a mcmansion for a song. And I can rent out the townhome or sell it, either way it will be easy for me to leave, I’m positioned for it!

P M
1 year ago
Reply to  Rick

Sort of did the same thing. Over the last 15 years I unloaded 31 rental properties, my remaining home I use while in IL is 1300 square feet which includes the garage. We are poised to bail once the last parent passes.

Peter Quilici
1 year ago

Although the fable of the frog which stays and dies in water slowly brought to a boil may be biologically inaccurate, it certainly rings true for Illinois. I envy the French for having the courage to at least make some noise when their government over steps. I wonder what it would take for Illinoisans to don a yellow vest.

Illinois Entrepreneur
1 year ago
Reply to  Peter Quilici

With the exception of the SJW’s, the people here are complacent and docile Midwesterners. Their bellies are full and their homes comfortable. They have their dog parks, their Whole Foods and enough wine in the six bottle rack to keep them happy for the time being. Go Bears! It will take a very disruptive event for there to be even a hint of collective anger. And many will just move somewhere else, rather than protest and shout and scream. That’s only in the DNA of the SJW’s, and they don’t care about businesses or capitalistic concerns like taxes. In fact,… Read more »

Jeff
1 year ago

Both are feeding the beast. They are lapdogs licking the boots of their masters.

Herb Caplan
1 year ago

Isn’t it telling that it is unfunded government pensions that represent the biggest hole in state and local solvency when it is the General Assembly and the Illinois Supreme Court, all comfortable beneficiaries of the pension system, that have created that hole and laid that crushing burden on taxpayers who receive no such benefits. It’s the ultimate conflict of interests in the government henhouse. But voters have been electing soccer players whose only financial skill is faking the opposition and kicking the can down the road.

Nothing
1 year ago

Rich Miller is not a real journalist. People pay big bucks to subscribe to his “subscribers only” part of his site, and most of them are union workers and Dems. If he goes against the public union party lines then people will unsubscribe, and there goes his main cash cow. He is a paid off, biased liar. Period. His site is an echo chamber for out of touch public union stooges like Oswego Willy and RNUG. Speaking of RNUG, he is no expert. He is on that site all day long doing mental gymnastics for how the mathematical impossible is… Read more »

Name
1 year ago
Reply to  Nothing

You forgot to mention Wordslinger – another idol on the CAPFAX site. The comments section is rather embarrassing from an outsiders perspective especially when it comes to articles relating to pensions. I rather enjoy reading the comments section for a chuckle.

Nothing
1 year ago
Reply to  Name

Wordslinger is as clueless as the other two I mentioned. I would have spent an hour on my post if I had named every biased union stooge that posts there. It makes you see how clueless, greedy and self absorbed the public union workers are in this state – not all of them of course, but too many, and most of them are on Miller’s site for sure. They are really in for a rude awakening when the next recession hits. I plan on never returning to that site until their pensions go bust, but when they day comes –… Read more »

John Bond
1 year ago
Reply to  Nothing

You’re going to enjoy the misery of people being financially destroyed? You’re a stand up guy aren’t you? Heck of a moral code you have there.

Buh-bye
1 year ago
Reply to  John Bond

That’s right Johnny! When the court handling Illinois’ bankruptcy forces you greedy union scum to take a nickel on the dollar I’m going to laugh my ass off! The immoral, confiscatory draconian taxes you want to impose to satisfy your insatiable greed will not stand!

Robert Rhonda
1 year ago
Reply to  Buh-bye

Bankruptcy would affect vendors small buainesses and bond holders as well.
Assuming bankruptcy would have a desirable outcome for a state, if it was allowed, what would keep all other states from going bankrupt too. All states have debt. Several have more debt than Illinois, and most are only a few percentage points from Illinois’ debt.
Many small business owners would not get paid and have to go bankrupt. And the people who they owe money to would also have to go bankrupt.
It would be a worldwide financial catastrophe.

Marcia
1 year ago
Reply to  Robert Rhonda

And the realistic alternative is…?

1 year ago
Reply to  John Bond

I certainly can’t speak for everybody but I will enjoy bad people like public employees being financially destroyed. I am happy when bad things happen to bad people. There are fewer things that would give me greater pleasure in life.

Nothing
1 year ago
Reply to  Mark Glennon

You are right Mark. He deleted numerous comments of mine that corrected one of his pals on there – they weren’t even directed at him. Like I said Mark – Rich Miller is not a real journalist at all.

Bob Out of Here
1 year ago
Reply to  Mark Glennon

That’s why calling him and Hinz journalists is stretching it, to say the least. The facts, based on the financial data available, clearly contradict their point of view. They cannot defend their positions, so they just delete the comments instead. Unfortunately for them, the ratings agencies are reading the financial reports.

Rick
1 year ago

The rating agencies are ignoring the reports they are reading. Because they have Illinois just where they want us… “A step away from junk”. That’s where the highest yields are. As long as the politicians can keep screwing over the taxpayers, then the whole ponzi survives at just above junk. Ad infinitum. If a junk rating comes, then the way Illinois “earns” back a better rating is only to prove to the raters that they can screw us over more. The bond raters no longer rate finances, they reward the best screwing over plan against the taxpayers. It’s all a… Read more »

nixit
1 year ago
Reply to  Nothing

You observations on RNUG are interesting. While he is one of the few level-headed and non-vitriol-filled commenters on that site, his insights on pensions (and other state govt) have been wrong in the past. That wouldn’t be a problem if EVERYONE there didn’t take his comments as the holy bible.

I’m pretty sure he was a state worker now collecting a pension but not a union member. I don’t think Oswego is a state worker but would wager he has heavy ties to the trades.

Nothing
1 year ago
Reply to  nixit

I would wager they are just both liars since they both live on the site to an amount that is unhealthy. They hide behind the internet, and their actions say they are very much tied to the state in a way they have been very dishonest about at the least. If they get a pension from the state (which I think they both do) then they are in fact liars based on what they said to me.

John Bond
1 year ago
Reply to  Nothing

So you criticize someone for hiding behind the internet while hiding behind the internet posting as “Nothing?”

Nothing
1 year ago
Reply to  John Bond

First off, your real name is not John Bond, second off, they are hiding who they really are as far as getting state pensions – I didn’t mean their names. Enjoy the pension collapse pal.

nixit
1 year ago
Reply to  Nothing

LOL. The timing of your RNUG observations just before this final capitolfax post of the year reminds me that we live in a wonderfully absurd world:

https://capitolfax.com/2018/12/20/reader-comments-closed-until-january-7th/

Mr_Common_Sense
1 year ago

The “journalist” are nothing more that political partisans, who are at the beck and call of the corrupt Chicago political machine. I cancelled my newspaper subscriptions decades ago.
Journalism is dead.

S and P 500
1 year ago

It doesn’t help that for those of us who know how to read a balance sheet, the numbers are so huge they seem to defy any comprehension. Illinois has $54 billion assets, $214 billion in debts and unfunded pension liabilities, and a net position of negative $136 billion. Yes I know it’s a debt that will never be paid, but a $200 billion hole is like a hole that would be hundreds of times deeper than the Titanic.

Illinois Entrepreneur
1 year ago

I enjoyed this article, Mark. Rich Miller drives me insane. He has sold out good journalism standards to have access to the Machine hacks and union officials in exchange for quotes and juicy stories that sell the party line. He sells their position to the rest of us like these are poor, downtrodden public servant sods who can barely get by. When I see the lists of hundreds of thousands of these people making six figures with ridiculously lenient work rules and hours, I’m inclined to want to scream at my screen. I make a point to try and read… Read more »

J.A. Herzrent
1 year ago

It certainly seems beyond fixing. However, nobody gets a lump sum. When the money runs out the pensions and health care stop. Then, being older is better than being younger to the extent that you need food and housing for fewer years. (Fewer years still, perhaps, if you have no health insurance.) So perhaps the decades of folly will be harshest on those who kept feathering their nests with promises. Those between 55 and 75 who have been counting-down to the golden, COLA-enhanced years when the rest of us would shower them with largess on their carefree downhill ride. Not… Read more »

bruce
1 year ago

Still waiting for either or both of them to take you up on a little ole debate…

Regarding the “…make government retirees just as cash poor as those in the private sector…”. Maybe we’re cash poor because we are having to fund someone else’s pension…