Friday, June 1, 2012

Getting the Truth Out on Pension Reform

Your fate is in their hands.  Speaker of the House Mike Madigan and Republican Minority Leader Tom Cross discuss the pension bill.
Now that the smoke has cleared, and the state legislature has adjourned, it is time to assess what has happened, or not happened, to teachers' pensions.  There are many lies going around about pension reform. I've been busy the past week correcting people like Neil Steinberg, Terry Savage, and other reporters of the Chicago Sun-Times.  But today, let's get back to the blog and sort out the truth from the lies.

First, the Illinois House and Senate did not have the votes to pass pension reform, pure and simple.  The Republicans objected to the state shifting the burden of paying retiree pensions to the school districts, which the Republicans said would raise property taxes.  The Democrats wouldn't vote for the bill without the shift in payments to the school districts.  Now the legislature needs a 3/5ths instead of a simple majority to pass any pension bill.  That will be hard to achieve.

Who's right on the pension payment shift?  Probably the Democrats.  Former Palatine District 15 superintendent John Conyers is collecting a yearly pension of $226,000, and that pension is being paid by ALL of the state taxpayers.  Taxpayers in District 15 are paying the same for Conyers' pension as taxpayers in Rock Island are.  That is unfair!  If school districts want to give administrators excessive end-of-career salary bumps, then those school districts should pay for them.  

But the State of Illinois owes public schools, community colleges, and public universities millions of dollars in state aid.  How in the world are school districts going to pay for employee pensions when the state can't get already promised state aid to them on time?

Second, retired teachers DO NOT receive free health insurance from the State of Illinois.  This is a myth that has been perpetuated by Governor Pat Quinn and picked up by reporters and columnists.  The Teachers Retirement System (TRS) is the largest by far of the state pensions.  TRS consists of active and retired teachers from downstate Illinois and the Chicago suburbs.  Chicago Public School teachers are not members of TRS--they have their own retirement system.

When TRS teachers retire, they are given a choice for their medical insurance of an Health Maintenance Organization (HMO) plan or a Preferred Provider Organization (PPO).  The PPO costs more, and with a PPO retired teachers can pick their physicians.  Most teachers, such as those in Palatine-Schaumburg High School District #211, choose the PPO option when they are active teachers and then continue with the state's PPO when they retire.

In our family, we were forced to choose the PPO option because both my wife and I have pre-existing medical conditions which are treated by specialists.  So my wife and I pay $450.00 apiece per month for the PPO coverage, and the State of Illinois chips in an additional 25%, which is $112.00 apiece, per month.  As you can see, this is expensive; we pay almost $11,000 a year in medical insurance premiums.  We never received a medical tax deduction on our Federal Income Tax before we retired, but last year our deduction was $3,000 for medial expenses.

State employees who worked for the State of Illinois for 20 years or more DO get free medical insurance from the state.  But there are far less of these retirees than there are retired teachers.

The tactic has been to lump retired teachers in with retired state employees and say that retired teachers are receiving free medical insurance.  Steinberg, Savage, and Governor Quinn have all done this, and saying that teachers receive free health insurance in retirement is simply a LIE!

Third, the coverage that retired teachers receive from CIGNA, the state's PPO provider is loathsome.  I'm not sure how CIGNA can deny a woman coverage for a mammogram when she has breast cancer, but CIGNA does.  CIGNA also denied her coverage for an MRI to check for bone cancer.  I just had surgery on my big toe in January, and CIGNA denied me coverage because my Galesburg foot doctor was not in the CIGNA network.  Unbelievable!

Plus, the State of Illinois is not paying the 25% of our premiums to CIGNA on time so CIGNA is not paying physicians on time.  My family doctor wrote me a note telling me that CIGNA told him he would get his money when the State of Illinois paid CIGNA.  Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago just threatened me yesterday with a collection agency if I didn't pay my bill that CIGNA was supposed to pay. 

Fourth, if the current pension bill passes this summer, retirees will be forced to make a one-time choice between receiving an annual Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA) or enrolling in the state's HMO or PPO.  Currently, retired teachers receive a 3% raise on the January 1st after their 61st birthdays.  Plus, if the teacher retired at age 55, the raise is retro-active to when the teacher retired.  I was 59 when I retired in 2007, so when I turned 61 in 2009, I received a 6% increase in my pension.  Now I get a 3% raise every year.  The current system bases the 3% raise on a teacher's current pension amount.

The new plan under consideration freezes the pension amount so if a teacher retires with a $55,000 pension, that amount will ALWAYS be used to figure the 3% raise.  There will be no compounding as there is now.

Making teachers choose between the insurance and the COLA is unconstitutional.  Here's what the Illinois State Constitution says: 
Membership in any pension or retirement system of the State, any  unit of local government or school district, or any agency or  instrumentality thereof, shall be an enforceable contractual relationship, the benefits of which shall not be diminished or impaired. (1970 Illinois Constitution, Article XIII, Section 5).
When I began teaching in 1980, I became a "member" of the Teacher's Retirement System.  Therefore, my benefits cannot be "diminished or impaired."  The politicians think that the choice option takes them off the hook, and they argue that other states have been able to dodge their commitments.  This quotation from our constitution looks awfully clear to me.

Plus, Governor Quinn promised that he would NOT propose any changes to retiree pensions.  Then last week, under the cover of the Memorial Day holiday, he proposed the COLA/Health Insurance Choice for retirees.  I would be laughing now if I weren't so angry.

Fifth, notice how quiet the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago has been these last few days.  The president of the group, who is also the former Illinois Attorney General, Tyrone Fahner, pretty much disappeared from the headlines.  Fahner did say that he supported moving the pension liability from the state to the school districts, which is against what his fellow Republicans want.  

It is pretty clear that Fahner and his billionaire buddies in the Civic Committee don't really care about the Republicans.  All they want is to keep their fortunes.  These are the people that the politicians should be looking at for money to shore up the pension system.  Picking on downstate retired teachers with an average pension of just over $33,000 and no Social Security benefits is criminal.

Look at all the tax breaks that the companies who are members of the Civic Committee have received.  Motorola, Caterpillar, A T & T, McDonalds, the list goes on and on.  Cat is in the process of busting out the local union in Joliet, and the company has already savaged the UAW contract.

I recommend taking away these corporate tax breaks as a first step to pension stability, and then legislating away all the tax loopholes that Civic Committee member companies enjoy.  After that, come talk to us. 

I've found my state senators and representatives eager to listen to my arguments.  All four are Republicans, but Kay Hatcher and Don Moffitt both pledged that they would vote not to change the pension formula.  Don't be afraid to call your legislators.  They want to hear from you!

Governor Quinn said this morning that he plans to meet with legislative leaders and call all the members back to Springfield in June to pass a pension bill.  Make sure when this gets close that you call your state senator and state representative.  We must succeed in stopping this unconstitutional pension grab.

This has been a wild ride, and it's not over yet!

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