It seems my One View piece in the March 13 Wednesday Journal [Pension reform is on its way, Viewpoints] has stirred up a spirited conversation on oakpark.com between those favoring deep cuts in public pensions and those who believe public employees are entitled to promised defined benefits upon retirement.
This conversation underscores that the principles of fiscal responsibility, equity for public employees and constitutionality all must be incorporated in pension reform legislation that can actually pass the General Assembly.
We are making progress: the Illinois Senate Executive Committee that I chair advanced two major pension reform bills to the Senate floor this past week — virtually as the March 14 WJ was hitting Oak Parkers' mailboxes. It's noteworthy that both ends of the spectrum on pensions found plenty not to like in these bills. Both were opposed strenuously by organized labor. One was even more vociferously opposed by civic watchdog groups. One passed with bipartisan support; the other was carried almost entirely by Democrats.
I'd also like to respond to those who say the current Democratic majorities in the General Assembly bear ultimate blame for underfunding of the pension system. Since I took office in 2003, when Democrats took control of the Senate and the governor's office, we have paid $36.9 billion into the pension systems. That's $9.8 billion more than we were required to contribute under the deeply flawed 1995 plan passed during a time of Republican legislative majorities.
Nor did we ever take a pension "holiday" — that is, skip a year's payment to the pension system. In some years we contributed less than required by the 1995 law, but in the remaining years we contributed significantly more.
I'm not going to pin our current mess entirely on Republicans, but the fact that we're only now heading in the right direction is an indication of the depth of the problem created by the 1995 legislation signed by Governor Edgar.
Finally, I appreciate that Wednesday Journal saw fit to call out my One View piece in an editorial — even if I was gently scolded for "finger-jabbing" at, among others, the Chicago Tribune editorial board. I would merely point out that on the same day WJ published my One View, a Chicago Tribune editorial called for the resignation of any member of the General Assembly who voted for that 1995 pension funding plan that I criticized last week and its "slippery actuarial practices." I hope that puts my comments in perspective.
Senator Don Harmon, a lifelong Oak Park resident, is a Democrat representing the 39th Illinois Senate District. He is President Pro Tem of the Illinois Senate.
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