Legislators talk tough issues at Oak Park forum

Harmon, Lilly address perception of pensions, budget 'crisis'

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By Anna Lothson

Staff Reporter

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."

Email: anna@oakpark.com Twitter: @AnnaLothson

Reader Comments

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Let's Get Real from Oak Park  

Posted: July 31st, 2013 6:23 PM

How on earth can Sen. Harmon claim that the Illinois pension crisis is "a reputational rather than a real problem" and that there is "a lot of artificiality"? We are paying more and more very real dollars in interest as a result of the ratings agencies downgrading Illinois debt, which gets worse at an accelerating rate with every passing day! It's time to stop pooh-poohing the problem and act, or WE will in the next election.

Done from Oak Park  

Posted: July 29th, 2013 3:17 PM

Are we sure that Madigan didn't tell him to go and "tell your constituents that things are OK and nothing is dyfunctional in Springfield"?

What??? from Oak Park  

Posted: July 29th, 2013 1:46 PM

Tom Broderick has indeed opined on WJ pages as a member of Democratic Socialists, so his desire to redistribute the fruits of other people's labor is in his DNA & is nothing new. He of course misses the point in that Illinois does not have a Tax Receipt (don't say "revenue") problem. It has a spending problem. Period. State workers allowed themselves to be duped by Mike Madigan & his ilk for decades, & must bear the brunt of their own poor decisions. The rest of us can't afford it, even traders.


Posted: July 29th, 2013 11:50 AM

Tom Broderick, as I recall you're a self proclaimed Democrat Socialist, so of course you want to redistribute everyone's wealth, as long as it isn't yours. That's what happened in Detroit. We know your answer to that would be there wasn't enough redistribution. You're beyond delusional.

Uncommon Sense  

Posted: July 29th, 2013 11:00 AM

The pensions are unsustainable. I think teacher and other govt worker pensions should be eliminated and moved to 401k. Tax policy should be revised to encourage people to save more for retirement. There should be no caps on 401k contributions or income limits for IRAs, etc. I have no problem with police & fire receiving pensions given the job hazards though. Special circumstance.

Uncommon Sense  

Posted: July 29th, 2013 10:55 AM

Tom, you are delusional if you think such a tax won't be passed on to the little man on the street through lower returns on their pensions, 401ks, and the like. It woud hurt the very people you want to help.

tom broderick from oak park  

Posted: July 29th, 2013 10:39 AM

The Chicago Mercantile Exchange is a wildly lucrative business. The proposed tax is on the traders, not on the Exchange. A $1.00 tax on the buyer and seller of each contract is estimated to raise between $4.5 billion and $6 billion annually.


Posted: July 26th, 2013 3:31 PM

It only takes the avg pensioner about 10 years to burn through their "earned" benefits (their contributions, state contributions, and investment income). While the state's gross mis-manangement has not helped, the pension system has long been a house of cards waiting to fall. The system only appeared to be better funded because there were far more contributors than retirees. That ratio has shifted drastically. More people withdrawing, living longer, higher salaries...these are your root causes.

Worth Repeating  

Posted: July 26th, 2013 3:16 PM

It's great that the local school districts' abuse of the state pension system was mentioned, but let's be honest about how it happened: teachers unions wrote the exhorbitant pension-inflating pre-retirement raises into their contracts and the school districts approved them. Let's also recognize that Oak Park teachers were amongst the most aggressive in such abuse and entire generation of now-retired teachers profited and continued to profit from this institutionized fraud.

Bridgett from Oak Park  

Posted: July 25th, 2013 4:58 PM

Tom, As Don Harmon explained, the Merc could relocate their servers to another state, and thus no longer to be deemed doing business in IL. That was his concern regarding imposing this transaction tax on the financial community--that IL would lose the entire business by the Merc relocating their servers to avoid such a tax.

tom broderick from oak park  

Posted: July 25th, 2013 4:30 PM

A financial transaction tax would be one way to raise revenue. Tax the traders on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange who engage in high end derivitive trades. This is a very lucrative source of money that Illinois desperately needs. At a dollar per contract on the buying and selling trader, we could raise between $4.5 and $6 billion dollars. This plus a "graduated" or "fair" income tax could produce much needed dollars.

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