You say that your job is “promise keeper.” You are constantly reminding the trustees as well as your subordinates that they are also promise keepers. You said last October that every day you go to work you remind yourself that you are a promise keeper. (Apparently you have stopped your daily reminder.) The complete context of your talk makes it clear that the promises to which you refer are the benefits that are protected in the constitutional clause. We agree. Your performance in office should be primarily judged by your efforts to keep the promises made to TRS members. But your answer was brief and necessarily simplified. It leads to the more difficult question — what exactly are those promises?
THE COMPLEX ANSWER
Mr. Madiar’s findings have proven essential to TRS, IFT, IEA, and IRTA. We assume that all TRS trustees have read the article. We are forced to conclude, Mr. Ingram, that you have not read the Madiar article. If you understood the guarantees explained in the article and TRS’s commitment to these promises, you would not have made your statements of this past week.
You have recently announced your intention to educate TRS members about the reality of our pension problems. Many of us have been observing and studying those problems for decades. We voted for the constitution some forty years ago. We raised the alarm when the legislature stiffed the pension fund year after year. Many of us have been on top of this story for decades. Forgive us, Mr. Ingram. We hate to condescend, but perhaps you also need to be educated. The political and economic pressures that you call “the new reality” are not new at all. The unfunded balance goes back to 1953. When the constitutional convention drafted our guarantee clause, the balance was worse than it is today. Political and economic pressures are not reasons to abandon the constitutional guarantee. The exact opposite is true. Political and economic pressures are precisely the reasons our guarantee was created.
You now ask the question — if the state won’t meet its funding obligations, should we consider reducing benefits to retirees? Madiar explains with great clarity that this question itself is a huge threat to retirement security. The question you asked this week was asked in New Jersey more than forty years ago. The question led to a tragic court decision there. Retired teachers were devastated. Madiar convincingly explains that the framers of our constitution understood that the very question was the biggest threat to retirement security. They drafted our guarantee clause so that that question could not be used to reduce benefits for Illinois teachers.
Mr. Ingram, you ask a very important question. But that question was thoroughly researched, extensively debated, and definitively answered at the time of our constitutional convention. Many retirees were part of that public debate. We were especially pleased with the pension guarantee.
It’s obvious, Mr. Ingram, that you were not watching this process. No one could blame you. We would estimate that you were in grade school out east when our constitution became the law of the state. Your ignorance then was to be expected. Your apparent ignorance now is completely unacceptable for the chief “promise keeper” of the TRS.
Frankly, Mr. Ingram, have you been telling the truth about our pension fund’s position all along, or did you only begin a week ago?
Your recent shocking statements have been rationalized with the explanation that you were only trying to tell the truth to the retirees and teachers. We thought you’d been telling the truth all along. We applauded each time TRS posted one of your letters.
It’s obvious why you had to concoct the phrase “the new reality”. You assumed office in January, 2011. For over a year, your positions were consistent. Did poor investment results cause the new reality? No, 2011 was a banner year. What triggered your reversal? The trigger clearly was a flood of newspaper articles that began when a newspaper obtained a secret email from you to the trustees. The email showed that while you were saying one thing to your members and the rest of the public, you were urging trustees to accept a far different version.
You’ve explained that the revelations this week were the result of your deep desire to tell the truth to your members. Forgive us, Mr. Ingram, but this answer is not credible. If the truth were in your secret memo, and you wanted your members to know the truth, then you would have sent them a copy of the memo. We didn’t get a memo on February 9th. Two months passed with still no announcement to your members. This whole mess was not triggered by your desire to tell members the truth. Quite the opposite, you simply got caught hiding what you now say is the truth.
You have recently asked if COLA or other benefit levels should be changed because of political and economic pressures. Your apologists say that you haven’t made any specific proposals. Obviously, such specificity is not required in order for an executive director to severely weaken our public position. If your recent reported statements result in any benefit loss for retired teachers, then the slippery slope has just begun. If the state can reduce the benefits of those already retired, then no teacher has a secure future.
There is only one position for TRS to take regarding the constitutional guarantee of retirement benefits. It is the same position TRS has had since you were a child. That guarantee is clear and unambiguous. There is only one way TRS can protect the rights of all of its members. It must insist that the constitution shields us all. If Illinois takes away any of our retirement benefits, then the constitutional guarantee is meaningless, and every member’s benefits are at risk.
You have sent several letters to newspapers recently. You deny that you advocated reducing any specific benefits. You say that you did not propose any change in member benefits or COLA. Instead, you say that you have outlined possible areas where lawmakers may look for a solution. You include “changes in the cost of living adjustment, changes in retirement age and in the benefit formula, and increase revenues through new taxes.”
Apparently, the newspapers saw very little difference between the statements “We should reduce retirement benefits.” and “We must now consider options reducing retirement benefits.” We don’t see much difference either.
We began this email by saying that we had urged the trustees to fire you. How much better would you feel if we tried to retract the statement, saying instead that it was high time that the trustees considered firing you?
We noticed that there are some options for Illinois that you did not suggest. Illinois could counterfeit hundred-dollar bills to solve the problem. Another idea is that we could rob a number of banks in Indiana. We imagine that you omitted these from your options list because they are completely illegal. Yet it has always been the position of TRS that no retirement benefit may be diminished. This is statute law and constitutional law. Why would you include an option which TRS sees as illegal?
Others share the TRS view. Senate President Cullerton says it would be unconstitutional to reduce benefits for those already retired. House Republican leader Tom Cross pushes cuts for active teachers, but has not advocated changing pension benefits for those already retired. He said, “In response to your recent comments, I’ve never had members of the General Assembly advocate that…” In fact, no legislator from either party has introduced a bill that included any reduction of benefit for those already retired. The Sidley law firm, arguing for the dreaded Civic Club, differs from Madiar in many ways, but even they say it would be unconstitutional to reduce any benefit of those already retired. I only know of one person in a position of authority who thinks it’s constitutional to reduce retirees’ benefits. That person is you, Mr. Ingram, our promise keeper.
Mr. Ingram, you have been caught saying one thing publicly and nearly the opposite in a secret memo. You have taken important positions without the authority of the majority of your board. You have both contradicted and weakened long-standing positions of TRS. You have severely embarrassed yourself, your board, and the institution. Your initial comments started a firestorm. Your later non-denial denials rekindled the flames. We don’t know if you intentionally did all of this damage, or if you just stumbled into it. We don’t care.
As Oliver Cromwell told Parliament in 1653, “You have sat too long for any good you have been doing lately… Depart, I say; and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go!”