Illinois Senate President John Cullerton announced his retirement yesterday.
Cullerton and Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan (who remains) have been partners in crime when it comes to public employee pensions.
Although they each sponsored different bills with different approaches to pension thievery and lawlessness, both bills were unconstitutional.
The worst part of the Cullerton bill was that it was introduced with the full support of the state’s union leadership, including Dan Montgomery of the IFT and Cinda Klickna, then president of the IEA.
In May of 2015, following the ruling of the Illinois Supreme Court that ruled the Madigan bill unlawful, I wrote this blog post.
When the Illinois Supreme Court issued their pension ruling last Friday it unanimously ruled on three basic principles:
1. Any change that reduces or impairs the pension benefits of current and retired members of the state’s pension systems is constitutionally impermissible.
2. The state’s claim that it retains police powers to ignore the constitution has no basis in law.
3. The state has clear alternatives to reducing constitutionally protected benefits, including raising revenue.
Rather than abide by the ruling of the court, Senate President John Cullerton has brought Senate Bill 2404 back from the dead.
Before it turned into a Zombie, Senate Bill 2404 was the alternative pension bill that the state’s public employee unions negotiated with Cullerton.
If passed, the bill would have significantly reduced the benefits of both active and retired teachers. The union leadership believed it was better than nothing. Nothing being MIchael Madigan’s Senate Bill 1. And Cullerton thought it had a better chance of surviving a court challenge.
Those of us who have been activists, advocates and bloggers on the topic of Illinois pensions never agreed with our union leadership about this compromise.
We believed that any compromise on the legal and moral obligation of the state to pay what was owed to its workers would open the flood gates and threaten every citizen who did not have connections and access to power.
And the Illinois Supreme Court agreed with us.
“It is not merely pension benefits of public employees that would be in jeopardy” wrote Justice Karmeier. “No rights or property would be safe from the State. The legislature could do whatever it felt it needed to do under the circumstances. And more than that, through its funding decisions, it could create the very emergency used to justify its suspension of the rights conferred and protected by the constitution.”
I keep that paragraph on a piece of paper in my wallet right next to my senior Ventra card.
Yet, prior to the Court’s decision our leaders were frightened. They were not sure what the courts would decide. They felt it was a safer route to bargain away some of our rights rather than risk losing them all.
There were those who asked, “How can you blame them?”
These are difficult times for working people. Even if we didn’t agree, who among us couldn’t at least understand the timidity of the union leadership in the face of powerful political leaders like Madigan, Cullerton and Quinn.
Not to mention the fact that there were others waiting in the wings with even a more draconian agenda than Madigan’s.
In the end, it didn’t matter. The union-Cullerton compromise SB 2404 never came to a vote in the House and Madigan’s bill passed in both Houses of the General Assembly and was signed by Governor Pat Quinn.
At the last IEA Representative Assembly just prior to the Court’s ruling, we asked the IEA leadership and the RA delegates to guarantee to union members that if the Court ruled for us that they would not then bargain away what we had won.
Following the IEA’s General Counsel’s absurd statement from the podium that such a guarantee would force the IEA to withdraw from the state coalition of labor unions, the motion was defeated.
We would get no such guarantee.
That it what causes some concern this morning from IEA members now that Senate President Cullerton has resurrected SB 2404 from the dead.
We have no assurances that the desire of the IEA and other union leaders to be at the table will not lead them to bargain away what we have won in court at great cost.
I do not think we should be distracted.
Of course, we should urge our leaders to reject Cullerton’s proposal of promises he cannot deliver in exchange for promises he cannot keep.
Instead we need to make clear to our friends and neighbors that pension benefits were not and are not the cause of the budget crises in Illinois.
The failure of the state to raise enough money to pay its bills and provide for its citizens rests squarely on the shoulders of the rich and the wealthy who care not a wit about the common good so long as it requires removing a dime from their pockets.
For someone like the demonic Elaine Nekritz to blame a retiree whose pension averages less than $50,000 with no Social Security for the state’s hungry children is without common decency.
For Democratic and Republican politicians to blame retirees for budget shortfalls at a time of an ever-increasing economic gap between the rich and the working people of the state is without conscience.
To hell with Cullerton’s compromises and lawlessness.