Credit where credit is due

Opinion: Columns

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By Jack Crowe

First, let's give credit where credit is due. State Senator Don Harmon dropped his concerns about the constitutionality of the $160 million state pension plan fix and voted for the only "doable" pension reform in Springfield.

As Harmon wrote in Wednesday Journal last week [Pension reforms: Fiscal stability and a promise (we hope) fulfilled, Viewpoints, Dec. 4], this was an agreement that left no one happy. But it was the best deal politically available, given the seriousness of the fiscal pickle the state found itself in and the pushback from teachers and state employees who understandably banked on receiving generous pensions equal to 75 percent or more of their final salaries, the ability to retire at 55 years old and a guaranteed 3 percent annual increase. 

To my mind, the reforms did not go far enough, but hey, this is politics, Illinois politics. 

Also thanks to River Forest State Representative Chris Welch who voted for the reform (though I'm still not happy about all the family members and friends you have working at Proviso high schools based on your former gig as board chair there). 

To State Senator Kimberly Lightford, and State Representatives La Shawn Ford and Camille Lilly — who voted against the reforms — what parallel universe do you inhabit? This was the biggest vote of your political careers and you punted. 

Who is the sugar daddy who was going to bail out the state? This year, over 25 percent of the budget went to funding pensions of retired employees. That percent was pegged to grow to 40 and 50 percent in the coming years. What would have happened to state spending on issues you care about, such as education and health?

Maybe you thought Illinois could shake the tax tree and money enough to fill the hole would appear. Here is a primer on economics: Tax too much and new jobs go elsewhere. Growing economies stop growing. When that happens, there is less income to tax and less money to pay teachers' pensions. See Detroit.

Here is another takeaway from the pension debacle: Our political system in Illinois remains dysfunctional. We Democrats control all three branches of government, and yet it took a Perils of Pauline cliffhanger — spread over multiple years — before pension reform passed. 

In the process, the state wasted tens of millions of dollars in additional interest payments (Who wants to loan money to a state with the worst credit rating in the nation without a substantial risk premium?). It sent a message to prospective employers that Illinois is not a welcome place to do business (Who would want to be on the hook if the pension till was empty?) And once again, Illinois became the butt of jokes from late-night comedians (Thank God Toronto Mayor Rob Ford came along). 

Here is a final takeaway. I want all the legislators to go home and spend quality time with their families over Christmas. Recharge your batteries. Because when you come back to Springfield after the first of the year, I want you to fight for three things: reforming Chicago and municipal pensions along the same lines as the state employee and suburban teacher pension fix; making Illinois a more friendly state for job creation; and pushing school reform (specifically by creating more opportunities for low-income families to access a quality education through charters and private school vouchers).

That's all I ask. 

Happy Holidays. 

Jack Crowe is chief operating officer and general counsel for the Cristo Rey Network of schools.

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Posted: December 11th, 2013 10:22 PM


Posted: December 11th, 2013 10:21 PM

If I were graduating from college now, I would strongly consider another profession if I didn't know how enjoyable it has been to work with kids. Sunday's New York Times had an article on the average performance of U.S. students on a recent test. Two points bear repeating: "The data shows no relation between competition between schools and the overall performance level." And "High performers pay teachers more. They are also systems with a commitment to universal achievement."

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