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posted: 5/2/2013 5:00 AM

As pension debate heats up more, forum was timely start

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Even before the forum on pensions that the Daily Herald co-sponsored with Reboot Illinois last week, we knew it was impractical to expect some specific result that would determine whether the event was a success.

Instead, we considered our most realistic goal -- and perhaps the most desirable one as well -- to be simply to open up the conversation on a topic that, although frequently discussed, is not as thoroughly understood as it needs to be.

On that score, there was much about last week's event to find encouraging. Most important, the three panelists -- all representing diverse points of view -- and the audience of nearly 250 -- also representing diverse viewpoints but heavily made up, it must be said, of teachers and state employees -- proved it is possible to have a civil and engaging conversation about the topic.

In any well-functioning democracy, that's a start.

With House Speaker Michael Madigan heating up the issue this week with a revision of Senate legislation on pensions, it's also a valuable start. No doubt, the rhetoric on pensions is about to be dialed up several notches as the May 31 deadline for adjourning the General Assembly approaches and as people begin analyzing the powerful speaker's proposal, which builds from a framework designed by state Rep. Elaine Nekritz, of Northbrook, and state Sen. Daniel Biss, of Evanston.

Hopefully, our forum at least marginally advanced the discussion for the people who attended, watched a live stream or followed the coverage in the Daily Herald and at rebootillinois.com. We know, as we said in our editorial last Sunday, that not a lot of minds were changed. In fact, on that measure, it was hard to come out of the forum without an appreciation for how deep and difficult the divide on pension reform is.

Participants themselves emphasized that point in responses to a survey we sent them. Consider these comments on whether something came up to make a participant question opinions he or she had before attending the program:

"My opinion on public pensions remains the same," wrote one respondent. "The House continues to ignore the fact that teachers did what was required of them, and should not be punished in ANY way due to the inexcusable acts of state legislators and governors."

Wrote another: "I don't think anything was presented to make me question my opinions toward the pension crisis. The IEA and other union groups along with their rank and file expect taxpayers to bail out pensions."

Not a great show of movement. And although the tone of those remarks is not necessarily typical, similar frustrations were evident throughout the comments from all the participants who responded.

But it was also hard to leave the forum without feeling energized by the discussion. In various pockets around the Harper College auditorium, people stayed to chat and debate about what they had seen and heard. That has to be a good thing.

We, indeed, intend to keep it moving and, in addition to our regular news coverage, will publish more columns about pension proposals in the next week from the forum panelists, participants and others.

In a column before the program, I expressed the hope the event would be a chance for all views on the pension issue to grow.

It was that, but perhaps more important, it also laid groundwork for something that's going to be even more important over the next several weeks -- active, considerate and perceptive debate.

As I said, it's a start, and I think a start in the right direction.

Jim Slusher, jslusher@dailyherald.com, is an assistant managing editor at the Daily Herald. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

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