The failure to amend the Illinois Constitution that politicians quietly placed on the November 2012 ballot as an end around pension obligations prompted Governor Pat Quinn to initiate an education program to convince the people of Illinois of the need for reform. The underlying tone of the Internet campaign, “Thanks in Advance,” resembles recent attempts to blame striking Chicago Public School teachers for missed school days. “Thanks in Advance” is another chapter in the war against pensions that suggests that government workers are jeopardizing the futures of Illinois children. Using an emotionally charged strategy of divide and conquer, the “reform” campaign sets private against public employees; community agencies and grass roots staff against public workers and union members, and the young against the aging.
Pension reform as framed by various “civic committees” suggests the need to correct abuses stemming from the past sins of overly indulgent public officials. These committees, primarily populated by business representatives and the local elite, project themselves through their media allies as disinterested parties save for their desire to secure financially stable, good government. Yet seeping through the typically thick filters of public relations are hidden intentions: tax benefits for business, government incentive programs, and lucrative contracts that depend on finance policy and the necessity to minimize other state costs. Ironically, it is some of the beneficiaries of subsidies, bailouts, and TIFs who point the finger at the middle class for the budget problems of the state.
Pension abuses exist. The collection of multiple retirement packages by politicians and judges (e.g., state, county, city, etc.) often with minimal time invested is a common practice. High-ranking school administrators have been known to “retire,” move across state lines and manoeuver to collect additional pensions. Rehiring the “retired” at lucrative salaries is one way colleges reward loyalists. These are, for the most part, the prerogatives of the privileged, not the ordinary worker. Still, the manipulation of the system is used to vilify-- sometimes by those guilty of the worst abuses-- all public employees whose average benefit in the case of at least one major pension system (SURS) is approximately $30,000.
Often missing from the discussion are the many years of irresponsible state borrowing from pension systems that it has yet to pay back; the carrot dangled in front of employees of a decent pension and health benefits to compensate for years of low or no salary increases while employees with the same or less credentials in the private sector received better remuneration. Conveniently absent from pension talk is the fact that state workers agreed to increase their contributions in order to secure an annual cost of living increase (COLA), which is now being bandied about as the symbol of state largesse, its so-called Cadillac programs.
This Illinois campaign is nothing more than the local version of the national Republican agenda that seeks to pick the pockets of the middle class and have it pay for the past abuses of the wealthy and well-connected, many of whom fed at the public trough over the years and now sing in the holy choir of the self-righteous. We must launch our own campaign using all the social media at our disposal to counteract the latest attempts at the Foxification of reality. Inform your friends and neighbors. Use every tool at your disposal to let them know who really mortgaged the future of their children and on whose backs the responsibility should be placed.
Leonard Ramirez is an ILACHE board member and freelance writer.