Dear Governor Quinn:
Recently you announced a special session of the Illinois General Assembly on August 17th. In calling for this special session, you urged lawmakers to push forward with “pension reform.” Governor Quinn, you keep using that word “reform.” I do not think it means what you think it means. You see, “reform” is defined as making changes in something to make it better. Asking a grandmother who dedicated 30+ years to Illinois’ children to accept less in her pension check next year in order to keep her health insurance does not make it better. Shifting the tax burden caused by decades of fiscal mismanagement in Springfield onto local taxpayers does not make it better. Diminishing the financial engine that generates more than $4.4 billion in sustained economic stimulus to the state’s economy as it recovers from the Great Recession does not make anything better for anyone.
Governor Quinn, you stated that you were “put on this earth” to fix this problem. Well, I believe I was put on this earth to make a difference. I was put here to teach. As I often tell my students, if you try to fix the wrong problem, you will likely create more problems and make people’s lives more difficult in the process. With all due respect Governor, this is exactly what you are doing. You are focusing on the wrong problem. The issue with public pensions was not caused by the benefits earned by teachers, firefighters, police officers and other middle-class workers who never missed their pension payments. The problem was caused by decades of fiscal mismanagement of the entire state budget by those in Springfield. The pension issue is just a symptom of the real problem that needs to be fixed: the state’s structural deficit.
I know some will say that Illinois is broke and we have to act. I agree. Illinois is broke – morally and ethically. For too long, legislators in Springfield have ignored the structural deficit. For decades they shorted or skipped their pension payments to give tax breaks to profitable corporations and keep taxes artificially low. Legislators wrote laws promising to pay back the money they borrowed from the pension funds and then promptly ignored the very laws they created. Springfield legislators creatively altered Tax Increment Financing districts that were supposed to address urban blight, instead using them to subsidizing the profits of corporations within these districts by transferring much needed local tax dollars from corporations to local property taxpayers. Springfield legislators gave tax breaks to corporations earning billions in profits then paid for them by cutting funding for much needed services, eliminating thousands of jobs depended upon by those who provided these services. And Legislators steadfastly refused to address Illinois’ regressive flat-income tax system – a system shared by only six other states that taxes a teacher who earns $40,000 a year at the same rate as a millionaire earning $4,000,000 a year.
Proposing “reform” that makes things worse for hundreds of thousands of Illinois working and middle class families does not make anything better and does not fit the definition of reform. So instead of picking on senior citizens who dedicated their careers to keeping Illinois safe or begrudging the earned benefits of former kindergarten teachers who for 35 years made a difference in the lives of Illinois children, I challenge you to do the really politically bold move. Fix the structural budget deficit. Reform Tax Increment Financing. Eliminate corporate tax breaks and revise the state’s regressive flat-income tax system. Replacing the flat tax alone with a system such as Iowa’s would cut taxes for the majority of Illinois taxpayers while generating $63 billion in additional revenue over the next decade. That’s reform that makes things better and solves the right problem. That’s bold political leadership. And that’s what is missing in Springfield.