CN November 15, 2012

Public pensions take the spotlight in today’s discussion, featuring Mayoral Tutorial‘s Don Washington and education blogger Fred Klonsky.

At the urging of many activists and civic groups, the referendum issue on the state ballot last week that would have restricted the ability of legislative and policy bodies to increase public pensions and benefits –  was defeated.  Both our guests agree that the defeat was a good thing. But they emphasize that the battle over how to fund the gaping hole in the state’s public pensions has only just begun.

Yesterday, Ty Fahner, writing for the Commercial Club of Chicago, said that the pension issue was “unfixable”, and he urged immediate, drastic cuts in pension benefits, increases in eligibility ages and other actions.

None of this impressed Klonsky.

“Here’s a guy who, when he was attorney General under the governorship of Jim Thompson, it was the worst time for the funding of state pensions under any governor,” he says. “They went from paying 90%of their obligation to 30% of their obligation. While Ty Fahner was the Attorney General. Now Ty Fahner goes on Chicago Tonight on WTTW and says that if an employer in the private sector were to do what the state did to their employees (renege on payments into their retirement plan), they would be indicted. So he would have had to indict himself.”

We asked Don Washington if it didn’t make some sense that many taxpayers, frustrated by their own dwindling paychecks and benefits, would think it unfair that public workers continue to receive what taxpayers might consider extravagant benefits.

“What’s happened to the private sector is that it’s been cannibalized,” he says. “It’s been eaten whole by corporations that have wiped away union protections, wiped away good, middle-class jobs, good working-class jobs, where they’re…basically devouring the base of the economy. And the only thing that’s left are the public workers who have public unions. They’re the last guys standing before a third-world country.  We shouldn’t be up in arms about how good the people have it who still have public jobs. We should be up in arms about the fact that the people who run our politics and our economy are so dysfunctional that they’re turning everybody into what amounts to wage-slaves.”

And Klonsky offers a fairly simple, if politically unthinkable, approach. “The actual solution for the funding problem in Illinois is for the Legislature to enact a progressive income tax. It makes no sense to think that you can fund the State of Illinois by taxing those who make the least the same as those who make the most.”

Last week’s election also resulted in a lopsided victory for a non-binding referendum in 327 Chicago precincts calling for an elected school board for the city. Don’t expect one to materialize any time soon though, since Mayor Emanuel and the leaders of the state legislature (who would have to approve it) are obviously opposed.

So wouldn’t an elected school board bring on a raft of unanticipated consequences – like special interest money buying seats, and mediocre candidates being elected by a handful of apathetic voters? Maybe, says Washington, but that’s the price we pay…

“When you ask for an elected anything, what you’re volunteering for is an endless fight. You’re volunteering that you’re gonna care enough about this body to be directly engaged in it. The more people are engaged in it, then you won’t have these problems. It’s just like any other political system. The more alienated and the further away people get from it, the more it becomes purchasable, the more it becomes reflective of the people who have powerful interests that never go away.”

And there’s another factor to consider. This Board will be determining how to manage the schools our children attend. If it involves children, parents will get involved, both  panelists assert. Further, Klonsky says not having an elected Board essentially disenfranchises a largely minority population that is the school system’s largest client.

“It’s simply a denial of the right to participation in a democratic system to say that only mostly minority people in the City of Chicago are not allowed to choose the people who run their school system. Everyone else (in Illinois) can do it, but not the folks in Chicago”


About Ken

Ken's the host of Chicago Newsroom. A former news director, reporter and radio program host, he's also a past Vice President of the Chicago Headline Club.
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