Ads about Illinois' pension battle are emotional and poignant, but are they true?

  • cross_2NE091003MJ dit 03-1325 Cook Photo0257629 Photo by Mark Black /// Illinois House Republican GOP leader Tom Cross

    cross_2NE091003MJ dit 03-1325 Cook Photo0257629 Photo by Mark Black /// Illinois House Republican GOP leader Tom Cross

  • State Sen. Susan Garrett (D-29).

    State Sen. Susan Garrett (D-29).

Updated 11/6/2011 7:11 AM

SPRINGFIELD -- As the fierce debate brews over how to reform the retirement plans of thousands of Illinois teachers and other government workers, the dueling sides have taken to the TV airwaves.

Their broadcast spots are emotional and poignant, with each side making pitches about why its point of view will have a deep impact on Illinoisans.


Yet, none of the ads tells the full story, and the fierce tone doesn't necessarily foster an atmosphere for compromise on an issue that could come to a head as the legislature reconvenes this week, Sen. Susan Garrett, a Lake Forest Democrat, pointed out.

On the side of reforming the state's pension system, a commercial shows a man explaining to a mother how heavy of a burden the state's retirement debt will cause her in the future.

Then, the camera focuses on her young daughter, with ominous music as the man says: "I wasn't talking to you" -- implying the tax burden of the state's pension deficit will fall to the state's youth.

On public employees' side, an ad seeks to emphasize that government employees work hard, pay into their retirements and shouldn't be shorted by politicians who largely caused the pension problem in the first place by failing to put adequate money into the pension funds.

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"I worked my whole life, saved lives, fought fires, taught kids. I'm not eligible for Social Security. All I have is the pension I paid for," it begins, with public employees like firefighters and teachers alternating speaking.

"They are very strong arguments," Garrett said of both sides.

But whether the tough rhetoric and state's continuing budget problems will foster pension reform this week, during the final three days of the legislative session, or even next year remains an open question as lawmakers face tough decisions on the issue.

"The commercials aren't demeaning," Garrett said. "But they don't tell the whole story."

For example, one radio ad from the Illinois Education Association says the plan being pushed by House Republican Leader Tom Cross and the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago would actually cost $34 billion. That's true, but Cross plans to change the proposal before it's approved.

And the Civic Committee's ad says "our retirement plans are $140 billion short." The actual pension systems are $85 billion short -- still a huge number. The Civic Committee says other state debts add up to the $140 billion.


Still, no matter the details, it's clear that the state's pension debt, left unchecked, will continue to hamper the Illinois budget well into the future, perhaps at the expense of other programs such as education and human services.

And it's also clear that fixing the problem is likely to cause teachers and other public workers some kind of pension pain.

Details of Cross' proposal can still change. But it basically gives government workers three options. They can either join a less-generous pension system set up for new employees last year, pay more out of their own pockets to stay in their present system, or move to a 401(k) style retirement account.

All of the benefits they've already accrued would go untouched.

"If you're legislator, this is a lousy issue," Cross says. "There's no upside."

Except, he says, the long-term health of the state's finances and a guarantee the Illinois retirement systems won't eventually default.

That's critically important, Cross says, but it's hard to convince lawmakers to shortchange local teachers to solve a problem that won't fully develop until they've left office.

In the meantime, teachers often bear the brunt of pension criticism, which Cross says isn't fair.

"If you're a teacher, you're doing everything that you're being asked to do," Cross said.

The Illinois Education Association, which represents many of those teachers, is among the groups fighting hardest against pension changes.

Lawmakers should at least take a step back and try to keep working on a better plan, said IEA spokesman Charlie McBarron,

"We shouldn't be rushing to put anything to a vote," McBarron said.

Some lawmakers would like to see some of the details of Cross' current plan tweaked.

Whether lawmakers will vote when they return to Springfield Tuesday is impossible to predict. A reform attempt could be put off until next year, or even until after the November 2012 elections, as lawmakers may try to avoid the politically tricky issue as long as possible.

The last time lawmakers approved pension reform, they tackled benefits for future employees, leaving current teachers and workers alone. It was still politically bold.

That time, the proposal emerged in a House hearing early on a weekday morning with no warning and was law by the end of the day.

Some labor leaders weren't even in Springfield to fight when the effort began that morning.

No TV ads.

No radio spots.

This time has clearly been different, and commercials about retirement reforms might pop out again if there's no action. Civic Committee President Ty Fahner says the group intends to keep the issue from being forgotten.

"We're just trying to keep the headlights on them," Fahner said.

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