By: Mark Glennon*
The Civic Federation of Chicago has a long, proud history as a watchdog for fiscal responsibility, particularly on pensions, providing an almost indispensable voice for the business community. They slipped in recent years, however, which raises some bigger questions about our whole business community. We will come back to that later, but first a bit of good news.
Yesterday, The Civic Federation published a piece on the funding changes for Chicago police and fire pensions recently passed by the General Assembly, which has not yet been sent to Gov. Rauner for signature. The Civic Federation expressed no opinion, but did at least ask to see any actuarial reports on it. They urged the City and General Assembly “to publicly release any actuarial studies that show how the funding levels of the Police and Fire funds would be impacted by the legislation.”
Why, yes, that would be nice. Earlier this week we went further, asking “where on earth” are those studies and why haven’t they been made public?” And we published a back-of-the-envelope analysis by an actuary absolutely shredding the pending bill. I am not claiming we are responsible for getting The Civic Federation to start asking questions; I would think they had been prompted by plenty of others. But let’s hope they go further and stay on it.
But, troublingly, the Civic Federation said this week they won’t be doing an analysis on the Cullerton/Madigan budget proposal until this Fall. That’s in contrast to Rauner’s proposed budget, on which they promptly issued a critical report. The Madigan/Cullerton budget is $3-4 billion short. Why no parallel analysis? Not clear.
It’s not because the Civic Federation has been historically soft on faulty budgets, pensions or Democrats. On the contrary, they were among the earliest and loudest to sound the alarm. “Doomsday is here,” said Laurence Msall, its outstanding President, all the way back in 2010, and he was right.
But a very noticeable change occurred a few years ago. The Civic Federation went soft. It lowered its voice. Its critiques of zombie pensions have been mild. It supported the inadequate pension reform bills passed by the General Assembly — SB-1 for the state’s pensions, which was recently invalidated and, more to the point, reform legislation that contains the very funding schedules that Chicago now struggles to meet. The reforms, obviously, were not sufficient.
I asked one Civic Federation board member about the shift. He acknowledged it was true, and said he thought they had just “gotten tired.”
I’m not entirely sure about that explanation. A quandary grips all business people in Illinois, not just in The Civic Federation. Tension and debate have long prevailed between those who prefer to call it straight and those who worry that frankness only worsens the reputation of the city and the state. Civic Federation critics often say it’s biased because it’s mostly business people. Well, maybe it’s biased the other way: It’s not exactly in the interest of business owners here to say “Doomsday is here” — arguably.
Reader’s here know that we are squarely in the camp that prefers to call it straight. Nobody likes deniers. Nobody invests in those who hide their problems. The national press is now all over the fiscal crises for Illinois and it’s municipalities, and they are being far harsher than local reporters. Hiding is no longer an option. Deny, delay, extend and pretend are proven failures.
There’s also an issue of fear. Fear that the likes of Madigan, Cullerton and Eddie Burke can find a way to nail critics on their next property tax appeal, or retaliate in other ways they are known for. Fear that unions will retaliate. (Heck, even my wife still worries our house will be firebombed because of what I write. “I grew up in a union family. I know how it works,” she said.) I do not think fear is the issue for The Civic Federation, but I know it is for plenty of other Chicago business people. They tell me that. There’s a better word for it: Cowardice.
In the meantime The Civic Federation continues to produce plenty of great, objective research. We link to it and interpret it frequently. They are among the few sources of honest data to counter what government produces, even if their policy positions and language have gone soft.
Please, Civic Federation — and all of Chicago’s business community — this is your moment.
*Mark Glennon is founder of WirePoints. Opinions expressed are his own.