By Jim Bowman
How high the cost of college:
A panel of student-questioners were given the floor. First, the high cost of college.
Sen. Harmon said legislators are aware of the problem and are working on it.
Sen. Lightford referred to MAP (Monetary Award Program) grants, the state's financial aid program for "neediest" students attending Illinois colleges.
Rep. Lilly offered a remarkable claim: "I passed legislation for grants for junior college," adding an equally remarkable suggestion, "I'd like to put on the table, [we should] get parents involved. We need to bring them to this room and ask them how to do it."
But parents were in this room, so were their children, asking four legislators, one of them Lilly, how to solve the problem. No one asked her what she had in mind, who apparently knew her well enough to just let it go.
The oddity of "passing legislation" remains unexplained. Her only involvement with college-related legislation had been co-sponsorship of a bill in the previous February to prohibit smoking on state-funded campuses.
The next question, about how to improve school lunches, got the students some teacherly advice from Rep. Ford, a former teacher -- "Form a student lunch committee. It will change things" -- and from Sen. Lightford -- "Draft legislation, if you will, changing the menu. Open dialog with the school administration." All things considered, it was good advice from both.
A student asked about pension funds. They had been underfunded "the day [he] was born," Harmon told the questioner. It was "the most complicated problem" the state faced. Once again he noted "the crucial reform of 2010," which at the library three months earlier he had said "kind of solved" the problem but had been "grossly underreported." Again he made special mention of the Tribune as chief offender.
Ford called the problem "difficult to a degree," but ruled out benefits reduction as unconstitutional "because it reduces [legislated] benefits" -- which was the reasoning that prevailed within the Illinois Supreme Court some months later.
Lightford declared it a moral issue. "I'm challenged," she said, apparently meaning she couldn't make up her mind, or so she said, carefully. "If a teacher after 25 to 30 years, retires, it's totally wrong to [reduce] benefits."
A woman in the audience spoke out: "Right."
Totally wrong or not, Lightford was "not for it . . . not against it," having in mind "all who did their due diligence," apparently meaning put in their time as employees.
The woman in the audience once more: "That's right."
Lightford made further extended comment, then struck a blow for reductions, sounding as if, but not quite, as if she'd made up her mind: "We're talking about people's livelihoods."
The woman in the audience again: "That's right."
Lightford continued: "I have time" to plan, for retirement, which she did not expect for many years. But others do not. Finally, settling the matter: "I can't give a yes or a no" to reducing pensions.
Her friend in the audience once more: "Thank you for that."
Advice from Lilly:
Lilly offered her dollop of wisdom: "Process is as important as the end itself." She spoke with hands in air, causing mike-sputter: "So correctively [sic], what can we do? We need to listen to one another."
The woman in the audience said nothing.
"We are listening to state employees," Lilly continued, finally seeming to embrace the unembraceable: "Someone will walk away with less," adding, "they may have a better feeling toward our state." When all was said and done, apparently.
Ford noted a possible upside to the pension cut. For someone on a fixed income "and working because they want to work," he said, the outcome "might be good." Silk purse, sow's ear.
In the nick of time. It was 9 p.m. The meeting was over.
From Illinois Blues: How the Ruling Party Talks to Voters — available in paperback, epub and Amazon Kindle formats.
Answer Book 2018
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