By Anna Lothson
State Senator Don Harmon (D-Oak Park) and State Representative Camille Lilly (D- Chicago) put themselves in the hot seat last week in Oak Park to address two topics causing a lot of stir across the state: budget and pensions.
Facing a packed crowd at the Oak Park Public Library July 17, the state lawmakers tackled these subjects as part of a series of town hall meetings Harmon's office is hosting in the area during the next month. His specific goals at last week's town hall meeting focused on engaging residents, clarifying what's been done in Springfield, addressing what's still on the table, and giving perspective about misconceptions swirling around the issues.
Harmon kicked off his presentation by explaining the current state legislature pension debate that hit its most recent hurdle when a solution was not reached by Governor Pat Quinn's July 9 deadline. Harmon, in a meeting prior to that deadline, called the date "artificial" and said the order was unrealistic. But when the general assembly failed to meet Quinn's request, the governor took it upon himself to suspend his and their pay.
The senator said the hurdle the legislature faces comes down to a "difference of opinion" between two proposals that cannot be reconciled because they are fundamentally too different. It isn't about compromise, Harmon stressed; it's about managing the differing perspectives.
Much of the pension problem stems from decades on underfunding pensions and not owning up to obligations that were promised. Harmon has continually acknowledged this during his discussions on the matter. Still, he and Lilly praised the state for passing a "fair budget" that avoids making further cuts to education, health care and social services that were made in recent years.
A solution on pensions is within reach, Harmon said, but a timetable to achieve such is unknown. Otherwise, the state will fall further behind its obligation to people relying on pensions for their retirement.
"There is no magic number. We need to do this," Harmon said on pension reform. "I share your frustrations. I'm frustrated we're not done. But this is not a process where you can snap your fingers. This is 50 or 60 years in the making. It's a complicated problem and it impacts people to whom we have made a promise. There is a moral dynamic to this too."
Lilly echoed Harmon's concerns in her remarks, but instead focused her initial statements on her belief that Illinois passed a budget this year that understands people's needs. She praised the legislature for not cutting healthcare and social service programs that have been vastly "hurt" in recent budgets.
The July 17 town hall style meeting launched into a Q&A session quickly and a lengthy line of constituents, some identifying as Oak Parkers, rattled off their own concerns. Topics discussed ranged from gay marriage in Illinois and gun safety laws to healthcare costs and increasing tax burdens. Oak Park Village Clerk Teresa Powell asked a question about how to address the rising tax burden Oak Park residents have felt because of a proposed change in pension protocol for educators that shifts the burden to local school districts. Lilly stressed "there is no perfect way to deal with our educational funding," and that more dollars are needed.
Harmon touched on the education pension shift, explaining how mistakes were made about allowing the state to be responsible for funding pensions that some school boards easily manipulate, which brought about a new set of state regulations. Spiking salaries toward the end of an educator's career to increase pension obligations was one example the senator referenced.
"No one quite knows how that happened," he said. Still, Harmon said the legislature is "sensitive" with how it should help schools transition into managing their own pensions without shifting the burden onto taxpayers through property taxes.
One resident spoke up to challenge his senator and representative to convince him why he and his young family should stay in Illinois.
"This is when we come together," Lilly stated with authority following the man's question. "We all have different perspectives. I celebrate that because I grow from listening to that. Each of every one of you has respected differences of opinion of how your life should be in Illinois. I think you should stay in Illinois. …Opportunity is growing."
Harmon, who also got into a one-on-one debate a few times with one particular resident, addressed what he believed to be misconceptions in how Illinois budget issues are being presented. He agreed change needs to happen, but doesn't think the outlook is as gloomy as statewide media reports suggest. Harmon suggested Illinois has a "reputational problem more than we have a real problem."
"We have had some dramatic government failures. I don't think anyone can argue this," Harmon said. "With that said, there is a lot of hysteria surrounding this and a lot of artificiality to that."
He referenced the state's low interest bond rating, natural geographical advantages the state has, and also cited the power Illinois has because of its educated workforce. He used the tail end his time to project a light-hearted side with the crowd.
"We can only get better," he said, sending laughter throughout the crowd. "I have confidence. I couldn't get up every morning if I didn't think we were going to fix this mess. It took a long time to climb out of this hole, but we are climbing out of it."