The Sun-Times’ call to “fix the error” misses the point.

The Sun-Times is without shame.

This morning they ran an editorial that calls on the legislators to “fix the error” in Senate Bill 1.

Back in November SB1 was the bill they demanded.

The state’s top legislative leaders reached a deal Wednesday to cut pension costs for teachers, state and university workers and legislators. State lawmakers should ratify that agreement when they return to Springfield on Tuesday. The deal is the closest the state has come to passing a desperately needed pension reform package in years. Lawmakers owe it to taxpayers not to blow this.

The legislature did pass it. And they blew it.

There is no fix.

The first question I have is how do you even try to change a law that is already being challenged in the courts while the courts are still considering it?

The error that the Sun-Times is talking about involves members of the State University Retirement System who were hired before 2005 and have what is called a Money Purchase Option.

10,000 members of SURS are aligned with the Money Purchase Option. If you are one of the 10,000 and wait to retire after June 29th, the interest rate will likely fall and those retirees who haven’t given notice to retire could lose plenty.

This is the source of the University’s brain drain fear.

Why do I say that this was no mistake?

Today I spoke with Linda Brookheart of the State University Annuitants Association. When SB1 was being voted on Brookheart asked legislators if they had thought about the impact Senate Bill 1 would have on current employees who would consider their retirement options if SB1 were passed and signed by the Governor.

They knew. Or didn’t care.

Why do I say that this can’t be fixed?

Many of the 10,000 who can retire have already given notice. Even if the legislature can or will change the effective date in the bill, those who have given notice will go anyway.

The point isn’t where the decimal point is in the Money Purchase Option. Or whether the retirement date is 2013 or 2014.

The point is that the legislature and the Governor should never have messed with the pension systems at all.

Our pensions are a legal and moral obligation of the state.

All of us – every union, every association – said that there was no benefit problem. It was a revenue problem.

And now it is too late.

For the university systems it is too late. Students who are in mid-program will lose professors they needed and counted on. They may even lose the programs they were enrolled in.

The damage is done.

Even if the courts issue an injunction. Even if the courts rule SB1 unconstitutional.

The damage is done.

David Orr. Cut TIFs. Not pensions.


Cook County Clerk David Orr says we should place a moratorium on TIFS rather than cutting public employee pensions or raising working family’s property taxes.

A recent report, by the Washington-based group Good Jobs First, said that TIF funds surpass Chicago’s pension liabilities. The amount of money the city’s TIFs diverted in 2012 ($457 million) was more than its pension costs ($385.8 million) by $71.2 million.

“The Good Jobs First report reiterates what many knew – the city’s TIF coffers exceed its pension debt,” Orr said. “Perhaps as importantly, it points out the many inherent flaws in TIF accountability and reporting, and reaffirms my belief that there should be an exhaustive review of every TIF project and TIF dollar spent.”

In California, TIFs were siphoning off 12 percent of property tax revenue and when reform failed the financing tool was abolished altogether, according to the Good Jobs First report. In some California municipalities, the report said, “TIF had become a major budgetary item: as much as 25 percent of property taxes were going into TIF accounts.”

“California was sinking under the weight of TIFs, and Chicago could, too,” Orr said. “The California example underscores that the current TIF models in Illinois, which were developed in the 1970s, should be reformed to reflect the financial realities taxing districts face today.”

Orr urged city workers and retirees to do the math: “One, you pay more for a pension; two, your benefits are cut; three, you get a bigger tax bill. How many ways are you being asked to sacrifice?”

Read the entire statement here.

Pensions at the polls. The story of Travis and Guzzardi.

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Jay Travis and Will Guzzardi.

Back in May when the Illinois House voted for Senate Bill 1, many of us called on our union and political leadership to mount primary campaigns against those state representatives who voted to cut our constitutionally protected pensions.

Some we would win and some we would lose. Still, the message would be sent that there was a political price to pay for violating the public trust, for breaking a covenant, breaching a contract and ignoring the law.

At the state level, the leadership of the state’s public employee unions turned their backs on this strategy, sat on their collective hands, and created the present situation of actually encouraging voting for the recent and long-time state chairman of ALEC in the Republican primary for Governor.

In Chicago, the teachers union took a different path. In two state rep races the CTU took a risk and backed challengers to incumbent Democrats.

The pension issue is central to both races.

Early on, the challenge by Will Guzzardi in my 39th district attracted media attention. Will had challenged Machine incumbent Toni Berrios two years ago and came with in a hair of winning. This time it could be different. He has greater name recognition. He has more volunteers – passionate and committed ones. The kind that you can’t buy with a patronage job.

His position on public employee public pensions is unequivocal. The CTU is behind him. Even the anti-pension Tribune has endorsed him, which they explain that they do in spite of his strong pension stand.

Of course it helps (and hurts) to have slime dogs like Berrios and Madigan as your opponents.

A few miles to the east and south is the 26th District. There the CTU is backing Jay Travis. When Jay announced, nobody thought she could beat the incumbent Chris Mitchell. Mitchell is backed by the money bags of the Democratic Party, the regulars and County Board President Toni Preckwinkle.

But Mitchell is vulnerable. He voted against pensions in a district where 30% of the voters are public employees.

Even the pro-business Crain’s admits the problem.

Here, first-term Rep. Christian Mitchell, a fast-rising, 27-year-old Democrat who voted for the statewide pension overhaul last year, is facing a tougher-than-expected primary challenge.

Crain’s explains:

Teachers unions at the city, state and national level are mobilizing scores of volunteers and have secured more than $300,000 to potentially spend on behalf of Ms. Travis’ campaign, even if winning appears to be a long shot. Meanwhile, on the Northwest Side, the union is mounting a less costly bid to unseat Rep. Maria “Toni” Berrios, daughter of Cook County Assessor and Cook County Democratic Party Chairman Joseph Berrios.

The effort signals a bold shift in strategy for the CTU, which for years has doled out donations in a mostly even-handed fashion. Now, the union is targeting Democratic incumbents perceived to be vulnerable in the March 18 primary. The union’s message: CTU support should not be taken for granted.

“The teachers aren’t passive like they were 10 years ago,” says Sean Howard, a political consultant in Chicago with close ties to many of the city’s African-American political leaders.

After barely passing a pension bill in December for state workers and teachers outside Chicago, the Illinois General Assembly is under pressure to restructure the budget-busting outlays facing not only Chicago Public Schools but the city itself, which next year is to police and fire pensions by $590 million.

“Springfield is where we have to look to change the landscape politically,” says CTU President Karen Lewis, who lives in Mr. Mitchell’s 26th District. “I don’t know what the chances are, but I know we are not just going to quit.”

There will be time enough to draw all the lessons after March 18th, the date of Illinois’ primary election. Early voting has already begun.

But one lesson we can already take away is that there is no losing when our union leadership makes it politically costly for politicians to break a promise made to union members.

Soup Kitchen and half a cola at Robyn Gabel’s office.


This afternoon our chapter of IEA Retired, the Skokie Organization of Retired Educators (SORE) had planned another pension protest outside the Evanston district office of State Representative Robyn Gabel.

We had planned to set up a soup kitchen and offer half of a glass of cola.

Jack was bringing the Coleman burner and the pot of chicken soup. I was bringing the cola. Off-brand, to keep the cost down.

Gabel is one of those north suburban Democrats who call themselves progressive but consistently – always – votes to cut the pensions of state retirees.

Like Dan Biss, Elaine Nekritz, Kelly Cassdy, Ira Silverstein and Laura Fine.

But Mother Nature got in the way of our plans.

Apparently the Polar Vortex is for pension cutting as well.

It is minus eleven this morning with a wind chill of minus thirty.

We’re angry. But not crazy.

So we postponed the protest until February 18th when we’re hoping the temperature in Evanston gets above freezing.

It hasn’t been above freezing in Chicago for weeks.

Meanwhile you can send Robyn an email or make a phone call.

Springfield Office:
250-W Stratton Office Building
Springfield, IL   62706
(217) 782-8052
(217) 558-4553 FAX
District Office:
820 Davis Street
Suite 103
Evanston, IL  60201
(847) 424-9898
(847) 424-9828 FAX

City public employee pensions are next on the General Assembly’s agenda.

Join the discussion with Elaine Nekritz and me today at 6:30PM CST.


Just a reminder that you can join the discussion of Chicago and Illinois pensions on The Stream at 6:30PM CST. Or set your DVR.

The Stream is broadcast over Al Jazeera America. Viewers can Tweet in comments or questions @AJAMStream or use #AJAMStream, or submit them on their Facebook page.

It is not available online. Only on your local cable channel. Often it will appear as Current TV on your cable guide.

In the Chicago area you can find it on Comcast 107, Direct 347, Dish 215 and RCN 326.

Joining me on the panel will be Representative Elaine Nekritz, Better Government Association’s Robert Reed and Tony Martin from the Chicago Firemen’s Annuity and Benefit Fund.

I’ll be talking Chicago and Illinois’ #pensiontheft on social media. Join the conversation.


Al Jazeera produces a really interesting show using social media to discuss important issues.

Tonight I received a Tweet from Frank Matt, an Associate Producer of Al Jazeera’s The Stream.

Tomorrow night they will go live to discuss the Chicago #pensiontheft.

Frank asked me to video tape a series of 30 second clips that they will use on the show.

30 seconds doesn’t sound like much. But I can say a lot in a couple of 30 second clips. And The Stream will use those clips to move the discussion along.

“While many are familiar with Detroit’s pension crisis, few realize Chicago’s is worse. Funds for city workers are $19.5B short of meeting obligations – a gap of more than $7,000 per resident. For firefighters that means for every $1 owed in benefits, there’s only 25 cents in the bank. So with a system that’s only 35% funded, how can Chicago maintain its reputation as a “city that works?” Join us Tuesday at 7:30pm ET.

We also hope you are able to watch us at 7:30pm ET and tweet your thoughts on this topic to @AJAMStream! Our show format thrives on social media contributions.

You can join the conversation on Twitter.


Diane Horwitz and Rinda West. Last week the legislature dealt a blow to teachers.

diane Horwitz Rinda West

Diane Horwitz is a Moraine Valley Community College retiree who lives in Evanston. Rinda West is an Oakton Community College retiree who lives in Chicago. The following was published in the Springfield State Journal-Register. You can comment on the SJR page.

President Barack Obama recently cautioned the nation about “a dangerous and growing inequality.” As retirees, we feel that state policies are contributing to this worrisome trend.

Just last week, the Illinois legislature dealt a blow to teachers’ and other state employees’ retirement benefits.

We faithfully paid into our retirement plans for 30 years while we were teaching, and now we stand to lose a third of our promised benefits over the next 20 years because the legislature regularly failed to contribute the state’s share to our pension fund.

This assault on retirees comes at the same time we are grappling with critical decisions around health care. Just last month, we learned that the state of Illinois was eliminating our public, nonprofit Medicare coverage and pushing us into Medicare Advantage programs, operated by private health insurance companies.

We have just until Friday (Dec. 13) to enroll in one of these private plans or completely relinquish our claim to the state benefits we earned over many years.

Imagine an 80-year-old retiree, who was given only a few weeks to evaluate the state’s Medicare Advantage plans; compare these to the option of sticking with traditional Medicare and buying individual Medigap plans; compare prices, deductibles, co-pays and drug costs; and check with her medical providers to see if they are willing to take the new insurance plan.

In the middle of this process, she learns her pension benefits will be cut!

We have seen firsthand the confusion, anxiety and anger of many retirees from these cuts and changes. How do such state policies increase income inequality? One of our state senators, Senate President John Cullerton, argued in October that the state’s pension debt is not a “crisis” but rather “an issue being pushed by business-backed groups seeking lower income taxes at the expense of retiree benefits,” according to the Oct. 21 Chicago Tribune.

Slashing benefits is an injustice for retirees and current workers. Our pensions are not “gifts.” They are part of the wages we earned in a lifetime of work, compensation we were promised contractually. Why should we sacrifice so tax breaks can be given to the likes of Archer Daniels Midland?

When the General Assembly cut health care benefits for retirees, it precipitated the shift toward Medicare Advantage plans. While touted as a cost-saving measure for Illinois, studies have shown that the move to private Medicare Advantage programs will end up costing taxpayers even more because of the generous subsidies the federal government gives to these private, corporate plans.

Last May, the General Accountability Office estimated the Medicare program overpaid private insurers by $5.1 billion during the past three years for these Medicare Advantage plans, which are big moneymakers for insurance companies. Humana, for example, derived more than 60 percent of its revenue — $25 billion of $39 billion last year — from Medicare Advantage.

n contrast, public, non-profit Medicare has very low overhead and is accountable to the public, not to private shareholders wanting to squeeze profits out of our health care.

In our minds, none of these issues would have arisen if Illinois had an equitable, graduated income tax system and pursued other options for revenue generation, options that would have corporations and the rich “share the sacrifice” along with retirees. For example, we could get rid of our regressive flat tax of 5 percent that both millionaire bankers and fast food workers alike pay.

When it comes to health care, our entire nation would be better served by a simple, unified national health care system, a “Medicare for all” plan, under which health care would be assured from birth to death. We’d save money and lives.

Dignity and security are eroding for all of us in our country. It’s an especially precarious time for seniors. We need policies that reduce income inequality and provide security for all our citizens.

Urgent this AM. Oppose #pension theft. Create a witness slip.

One thing that teachers and employees can do is officially register their opposition to SB1 with the pension committee that will be meeting in the Illinois Senate today at 8:30 a.m.

Step 1 – Click on this link:

Step 2 – Click on “Create Witness Slip.”

Step 3 – Fill in the blanks and indicate “Opponent” by checking in those boxes.

Step 4 – Mark Record of Appearance Only (since you will not be at the committee hearing).

Step 5 – You will have to fill in the number at the bottom of the form & mark “agree to the terms.”

Step 6 – Click “Create Slip.”

Step 7 – Ask your friends to do the same thing