By: Mark Glennon*
UPDATE 9/29/14 — See note at end of piece regarding more detailed article my Mr. Madiar.
What a sensible headline: With Illinois pensions, what’s past is prologue. Instead of dwelling on the past we have to accept it and move on to solving the problem, right?
Yet Eric Madlar, Senate President John Cullerton’s chief counsel, goes on to write about just one thing — the history of underfunding. His big discovery is that underfunding goes all the way back to 1917. Not one word about how to solve the problem except for the last line, which is that we should accept history and recognize the obligations imposed by the constitutional pension protection clause. In other words, just pay the damn pensions (including his own.)
Of course we’ve been underfunding pensions. If we hadn’t been they’d be fully funded and we’d have no crisis. We should have tried, all should agree. That way we would have seen long ago that they are unaffordable and we would have addressed them sooner.
A useful history would have discussed why they’ve been underfunded and who is responsible. There would have been plenty to write about on that but Mr. Madiar’s boss, John Cullerton, would be central to that story. He’s the one who made national headlines for claiming we have “no crisis” with Illinois pensions. He’s the public unions’ go-to guy for stopping pension reform by disguising immaterial changes as reform proposals. He’s one of the top ten Illinois Senate recipients of union cash over the last ten years. And he’s the one who’s been defending for years the the state’s fraudulent pension reporting that has understated the problem forever. Yes, fraudulent — that’s what the SEC established as a matter of law about Illinois’ false disclosures about its pensions.
If Mr. Madiar really wanted to be a historian about this, he might have looked at what Mr. Cullerton’s entire family has done since 1917 to head off the pension crisis. I don’t know, but something tells me that’s not much. They have been central to Illinois and Chicago politics almost continuously since the Chicago Fire. Chicago Aldermen, Cook County Assessor, City Council Finance Committee chair, they’ve done it all.
Old timers, remember his dad, P.J. “Parky” Cullerton? Ah, good times. Wouldn’t it be interesting to dig into what fine work he did to avoid the run up in Chicago’s pension crisis?
They’ve always been friends with unions. One Cullerton alderman was a longtime member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. Before becoming alderman, he was the city’s chief electrical inspector, a post his son later took over, according to a Tribune article about the family.
Mr. Madiar’s real point, between the lines, is that because we’ve been underfunding pensions we have some sort of resulting obligation to catch up now, and underfunding has allowed us to spend on other things. Just fund them now.
No. Even with underfunding the taxpayer contributions have been so massive that they’ve obliterated proper funding for DCFS, schools and everything else. (Their unfunded liabilities continue to worsen, which we will be writing about shortly.) We have paid in more than enough.
Mr. Madiar is surely right, however, when he says that much of his time over the past three years has been spent on pensions. That has to be true about an army of people in Springfield, all of whom are getting salaries and pensions we are paying for.
Get beyond the prologue and fix the problem.
UPDATE: The author, Mr. Madiar, contacted me, very politely I would add, and suggested I review the more detailed version of his article, which is linked here, and it has a a much lengthier history of the underfunding as he sees it.
It describes how Republican governors Thompson and Edgar contributed to the problem, which is true. Read it yourself and you be the judge, but I would say it does not provide a balanced history of Democratic responsibility, too. Even with a Democratic governor and a Democratic supermajority in the legislature, underfunding skyrocketed and continues today for the same reason it has always occurred — properly funding pensions to pay benefits as promised would be so astronomically expensive as to be fiscally and politically impossible.
*Mark Glennon is founder of WirePoints.