Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Pension Doublespeak: The Chicago Tribune

Pension Doublespeak: The Chicago Tribune

Doublespeak: Evasive, ambiguous language that is intended to deceive or twist meaning to the opposite. Deliberate attempts to disguise truth through the careful usage of spin, twists, and methodical alterations to historical accuracies.  

My good friends and I watched the latest Star Wars episode, “The Force Awakens,” the other afternoon, and my memories of another blogger partner’s prescient comment crept up into the present moment. 

“No matter the Illinois Supreme Court unanimously found their attempt to take away our pension benefits were unconstitutional, you can bet these liars and thieves will return again and again to steal more of what they have stolen already.”

He was right.

Today’s Bruce Dold and Trib company’s editorial exceeds George Orwell’s doublespeak spinning the latest inability of narrow-minded Governor Rauner to grasp an ego-inflating olive branch from Senate Leader Cullerton to resurrect SB2404, an older version of forced consideration for public employees’ pension benefits.

Simple version: A deal between Cullerton and Rauner to resurrect his original pension reform bill requiring a choice between a COLA or health care for retirees – now altered to force a choice between increased salaries or COLA’s – was torpedoed by Rauner’s maniacal need for the Governor to add his own anti-union sentiments and inclusions to the agreement.

Truth & Building For Sale
But the Tribune hopes “Can this marriage be saved?”

What follows is an essayist argument that would have made Orwell (and party member O’Brien) delightedly proud.

Doublespeak:  “Given the Supreme Court decision to toss deeper pension reform – a plan we supported because of its much larger costs savings for taxpayers – Cullerton’s plan right now is the only game in town.  It doesn’t promise dramatic savings.  But it’s a start.”

Comment: A 38 page unanimous decision by the Illinois Supreme Court is not a “toss.”  In fact, when a Justice like Karmeier is given the nod by six other Justices to write the decision, he has his clerks and their clerks at his disposal to generate the information, the precedents, the legalese, and the final product.  He is not told to go ahead and write what ‘you think we all think’; quite the opposite, his opinion is then reviewed and scrutinized by the clerks and the other Justices prior to release.  It is not a toss – IT IS A JUDICIAL DECREE.

Doublespeak: “…a plan we supported because of its much larger costs savings to taxpayers…”

Meaning: We ignored the moral and legal argument by those who had been employed by the state with no social security and no access to anything but a defined benefit even as the state avoided paying them year after year, decade after decade for what was owed in matching contributions.  We stood behind our politicians like James Thompson who declared openly that services were provided without increased taxation (at the expense of public retirees).   The Pension Protection Clause never meant anything to us, and it still doesn’t.

Doublespeak: “Cullerton’s plan right now is the only game in town.  It doesn’t promise dramatic savings.  But it’s a start.”

Meaning: Let’s pretend that this symbolic adventure back into litigation is something more than just that – a likely expensive attempt by the state politicians to once again avoid making payment for our debts.  Forget the state budget.  Let’s ignore our constitutional duty to pay those from whom we have stolen and their own judicially guaranteed benefits once they begin service in the public sector.  Let’s continue to suffer under a ridiculously patched together scheme to pay back our debt in Illinois through a balloon payment schedule that will leave us all bereft of funds by 2018. 

Doublespeak: “Madigan’s chronic refusal to compromise – his devotion to politics rather than governance – has led to tragic service cuts for the state’s most vulnerable citizens…”

Meaning: Let’s ignore the other issues beyond the Governor’s refusal to advance a budget despite the suffering so many marginalized and others feel now.  It’s all Madigan’s fault.  Recall that just yesterday the Governor regarded the fall off of important Lutheran Social Services, as “we’ll feel a little pain as we go through this transition.”   

And I'm beholdin' to the Trib, and the IPI, and the…"
I’ll be listening to the State of the State tomorrow.  And on Thursday, I’m sure I’ll be entertained by the next piece of Doublespeak from Bruce Dold and the Board at the Trib.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Pension Reform 2016: Jamais Vu

Pension Reform 2016: Jamais Vu?

Often described as the opposite of déjà vu, jamais vu involves a sense of eeriness and the observer's impression of seeing the situation for the first time, despite rationally knowing that he or she has been in the situation before. Jamais vu is sometimes associated with certain types of aphasia, amnesia, and epilepsy.

Even while youngsters learn to read, identifying letters and decoding them, they’re also learning how to comprehend.  The pedagogical belief used to identify 3rd grade as that sacred transition point shifting learning to read to reading to learn, but it’s more complicated and inter-connected than that. 

As that steady change does take place, students become – like most adults – more self-aware about what they are or aren’t comprehending.  Ask any high school classroom if the students ever found themselves reading an entire page in an assignment only to realize they had no idea what they just read?  Every hand will go up.

The task for any serious teacher in any discipline is to provide for normal lapses in the night’s reading assignment by helping alleviate that common malady – providing a guide or overview, preparing a schema, checking for previous knowledge, identifying problematic vocabulary, discussing anticipatory responses, etc. & etc.  And, of course, teaching students themselves to do the same when they’re assigned some pages at the last minute as they hurry out the classroom door. 


That’s my bumper sticker for this political year.  I think maybe Springfield needs a reading teacher for every legislator.  Maybe I’d negotiate a few less than one for each and every of the 177 members in the General Assembly.  Why…?

It’s pretty evident in the last few days that no one in the General Assembly really comprehended the 38 page judgment of the Illinois Supreme Court in unanimously striking down SB1 (also known as Public Act 98-599).  Perhaps they read it, but my bet is their eyes glazed over and they just kept turning pages, vacationing in the font changes, and wondering when the assignment would come to an end. 

It’s pretty obvious the new Governor’s had “his people” read it for him.  I’d push for at least two reading teachers for his office staff; maybe an extra three or four for him – if he read it at all.

Last week, Republican Leaders Durkin and Radogno announced a new bi-partisan pension reform bill.  Durkin, who told me last May he’d have a new pension reform plan with bi-partisan support despite the Supreme Court.  Durkin said he was willing to take a “leap of faith” in dealing with the other side.  Senate Leader Radogno added she considered the outcomes of this collaboration “puny” but “nothing to sneeze at.”

Despite the Governor’s announcement of a new bill for pension reform which modeled the earlier SB2404 of Senate Leader Cullerton, the opinion of the Illinois Supreme Court on May 8, 2015, was sharp well-defined in its message that even a choice of diminishments is strictly unconstitutional. 

Citing Kanerva v. Weems, Justice Karmeier writes, “We held in that case that the clause (Pension Protection Clause) means precisely what it says: ‘if something qualifies as a benefit of the enforceable contractual relationship resulting from membership in one of the State’s pension or retirement systems, it cannot be diminished or impaired.’” 45.

Of course, by the time an excited Governor Rauner came to the microphone, he’d not only ignored the Court’s earlier decision but also added a new “agenda” wrinkle: the elimination of collective bargaining in his pension reform bill. 

Cullerton was quick to remove himself from any part of this discussion of a bill similar in design to his own SB2404, except for the addition of the usual Rauner anti-union demand.    

What triggered Rauner’s last minute addition of a “poison pill” to what might have been another attempt at pension theft in the General Assembly?

Is he as crazy as I sometimes think?

            Barista:  “Welcome to Starbucks.  What can I get you?”

            Rauner:  “How ‘bout a steamin’ venti skinny latte and no collective bargainin’?”

Or with his tanking numbers and inability to govern or do anything – is he reaching for any ally or any action, even if he realizes it can never come to fruition? 

More reading:

Reiterated by Justicer Karmeier in the May 8th decision: “The protections afforded to such benefits by article, section 5 attach once an individual first embarks upon employment in a position covered by a public retirement system, not when the employee ultimately retires.” 46

Is the governor so fixated or under-informed that he is unable to anticipate the senseless waste of litigation and money on a battle that cannot succeed? 

Justice Karmeier:  “Once and individual begins work and becomes a member of a public retirement system, any subsequent changes to the Pension Code that would diminish the benefits conferred by membership in the retirement system cannot be applied to that individual…”  46

Asking active teachers to choose between a lesser salary or a lesser COLA is a logical diminishment in every sense.

Facing what appears an insurmountable foe in Speaker Madigan, the cries of a State that has some sense of the need for services for the marginalized, and a realization that he may have bought an office but was woefully unprepared to govern – perhaps this is one of Rauner’s many upcoming acts of desperation. 

As Justice Karmeier and the six other Justices warned “future” leaders and legislators in the striking of PA 98-599: “The State did not select the least drastic means of addressing its financial difficulties is reinforced in legislative history.  As noted earlier in this opinion, the chief sponsor of the legislation stated candidly that other alternatives were available.  Public Act 98-599 was in no sense a last resort.  Rather, it was an expedient to break a political stalemate.” 68

Sounds familiar.

A reading teacher giving his new legislator an assignment to read all 38 pages might ask his Republican or Democratic learner to think about whether Judges would always sound legally erudite or sometimes like just exasperated parents?  If so, how can you tell?  Can you find sections where they do this?

“Even with the protections of that provision (Pension Protection Clause), the General Assembly has repeatedly attempted to find ways to circumvent its clear and unambiguous prohibition against the diminishment or impairment of benefits of membership in public retirement systems…As we noted earlier, through that legislation the General Assembly is attempting to do once again exactly what the people of Illinois, through Article XIII, section 5, said it has no authority to do and must not do.” 84

Good work.  Now, as an involved reader, make a prediction about what activities will need to be done next to lead the state forward. 

In Illinois under Rauner, it’s Jamais Vu all over again. 

Friday, January 22, 2016

Rauner: The Beatings Will Continue Until Morale Improves

Rauner: The Beatings Will Continue Until Morale Improves
 (from The Mutiny on The Bounty – Captain Bligh)

It’s been a rough start to 2016.  We’re nearly one month in and already I am awash in all the media’s anger and warnings.

A possibly certifiably deranged lady wearing some kind of chain mail is shouting, “We’re gonna kick ass; no more pussy footin’ around,” to the cheers of an equally unhinged crowd.  A carny barker with cotton candy hair in a $5000 suit looks on approvingly with pursed lips.

When it comes to collective bargaining, my possibly certifiably deranged Governor in Illinois, “a gaze blank and pitiless as the sun” is warning that our state is “gettin’ our tail kicked,” and the General Assembly should endorse his new pension plan and ignore the Illinois Supreme Court unanimous decision protecting pension benefits of state employees.

Usually sensible people in suits sit on a panel for Chicago Tonight and wring their hands while projecting no likely change in the budget impasse for up to another year.  Perhaps not even “four years,” says one of the state congressmen.  Each blames the other “full of passionate intensity.”

Bernie Sanders is gathering steam and votes in Iowa, and although his anger is totally comprehensible to me, it seems we are dangerously diverging as a nation of what was once moderate neighbors and friends.

“Things fall apart.”

Reprise: from October this last year with only a continued pain for the marginalized in our society and a long-term disaster for the state’s finances. 

King “Trickle Down” Rauner and the New Feudalism

“Rock-a-bye baby, in the treetop

When the wind blows, the cradle will rock

When the bough breaks, the cradle will fall

And down will come baby, cradle and all”

My mother used to sing lullabies to me when I was just a wee lad, but she never really took much time to explain them.  After all, I was drowsy, in all likelihood she was busy, and neither of us actually understood the sinister political messages of these little back yard commercials of the post-medieval period.  No Television, no Twitter, no Facebook.  Why not send innocent children out into the world with ditties composed to undermine the wealthy and the powerful?  Or record the horrors of a world controlled by the elite?

One of Governor Rauner’s chief demands before he will begin to entertain the current budget offered up by the Democratically-controlled General Assembly in Springfield is that they (the General Assembly) sign on to his Turnaround Agenda, showing fealty by passing some laws which indicate an unswerving acceptance of at least a few of his priorities:  right to work, reduced workers’ compensation, local controls, a freeze on property taxes.

In other words – no, in Rauner’s words – “if you accept my demands, I might deal with your oversized budget which will cost us a bit less than what was lost when we rescinded the last tax on income.” 

Madigan’s argument:  Rauner’s agenda has nothing to do with a budget.  He is trying to force a personal agenda which has nothing to do with making numbers work.  He stresses the need to undercut the middle class before he will accept a budget that will provide support for the marginalized and the middle class. 

Rauner’s argument:  I am for the middle class, but I need these requests for anti-union, anti-workers’ compensation, and property tax relief to be done first to provide a business-friendly climate for growing the middle class. 

Hauntingly, Rauner’s argument is another version, one presented in the midst of fiscal crisis for Illinois, that trickle-down economics works…and although Rauner has nothing to back that up in any substantive or empirical research, he is hoping that we will all swallow, just as we did when he ran the idea during his successful purchase of the governorship. 

None of us who worked for the state of Illinois are friends of Speaker Michael Madigan or his Attorney-General daughter Lisa Madigan.  We have seen and suffered the anxieties and anger of their illegal attempts to take our promised and paid for pensions from all of us.  Yet, in the most outrageous of absurdities, here is this same Speaker, arguing that he is trying to respect the rights of the middle class to be safe from persecution.

In fact, Lou Lang and Elaine Nekritz were political chameleons trying to explain their evolving acceptance of the Pension Protection Clause on Chicago Tonight on January 20th for Matt Murphy, Jeannie Ives, and the WTTW reporter.

Only in Illinois, my friends. 

And if Rauner were to get his way before the budget could be entertained by his new governorship?  Premier would be local control, along with local property tax freezes.  Each local village or city enjoying their own specific processes on union contracting, educational funding, workers compensation, educational mandating, etc. , like smaller individual governments acting sovereignly within their own areas. 

During Medieval periods, individuals walking from one small town to another faced a surrounding wall and doorway though which they needed ask permission to enter, after declaring allegiance to all the laws within that particular village/city. 

“Who knocks there?”

“A carpenter, Joshua Jordenson.”

“Are you a trained union carpenter?”

“Never mind.  I’ll be moving on…”

Now that Springfield is in a budget stalemate, Rauner is taking his argument  once again on the road (instead of sitting down to hammer out the fiscal issues).  He will be the advance guy for the nearly $20 million he has to spend on commercials decrying the evils of those in Springfield who have some concerns accepting what he would do to the mentally ill, the homeless, the educationally needy, etc. 

And, now that we enter the New Year with no concessions given. Rauner has decided to double down.  Let’s target pensions, the CPS system, Rahm, collective bargaining, re-districting, etc., all at once. 

This is a Governor who had nothing more than an angry agenda to be elected, no real plan to govern, only a platform from which to argue. 

Back to my Mom’s sweet poem.  I am reminded once again of the wealthy and elite – royalty actually – visiting the various villages during Medieval times, especially when the needed servants for their castles.  They’d send their lackeys out into the various peasant hovels to find babies to take for use as servants in their own castles.  The peasant, in order to save their children from being taken into a life of servitude, would tie the babies into the tree boughs in the evenings, hoping that the winds would rock the kids to sleep, and the strong-armed visitors at the doors would never find them.

If that worked, thank God, the Lord’s desperate servants left.  But if the wind blew too hard and the bough broke? 

They’d not want either “slouching beast” to get to them. 

With apologies to W. B. Yeats

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Hostages in Illinois

Hostages in Illinois

Seven-below windchill and brutal north winds this afternoon.  I am walking into a little bodega that serves coffee when I hear my name pronounced in greeting behind me.  When I turn, I see a “guest” from the shelter where I supervise standing in full snowmobile regalia.  He extends an open hand that is as cold as a steel rail on a day like this. 

“My Lord, Paul,” I say. “You’re freezing!”

Paul drops his many bags and gear on the floor of the mall.  His face is blotched red and white in that furious patchwork of wind-burn and severe cold.  “I just bicycled from Flossmoor, and now I am taking a moment to warm up before I head out again for the shelter that’s open tonight.”

Over 20 miles and another 5 to go.  After that, the discussion becomes one-sided, and Paul explains to me all of the techniques and strategies he uses to stay mobile, fed, warm, and alive during this cold snap.  Beyond wondering how he rides a bike in the snow, I find myself fascinated.

“These are actually the sleeves from a child’s winter coat,” he explains.  “I remove the sewing at the shoulders, sew the shoulder ends shut, and then use them as giant mittens over my gloves as I ride.   And, by using a large rubber band to tighten around my hand, I can separate my thumb so I can grasp the handles of the bike.”

I think to myself that Paul, whom I’ve known for quite some time, is a survivor, but the years are taking their toll on him.  And the others who cannot adapt like this smiling, survivalist-type are free-falling in Illinois’ budget impasse.

Please let it get warm soon.

The state’s inability to pass a budget has put a strain on the local shelter system, placing unnecessary hardship on people experiencing homelessness, a large portion of whom are families with children…With NO Homeless Prevention Program resources to prevent eviction or assistance to help with security deposits and first  month’s rent, many households are stuck in limbo at the shelter system level.”
Lynda Schueler, Executive Director, Housing Forward, Maywood

As impossible as it may seem to believe, significant moneys reserved for the homeless and those facing such dilemmas are sitting idle while Governor Rauner and the General Assembly continue their personal, political war of demands and refusals.

A recent report by the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless finds “As the state budget impasse nears its six-month mark, the State of Illinois has accumulated $107.8 million in 7 dedicated funds to create affordable housing and end homelessness.  However, these funds – such as the Illinois Affordable Housing Trust Fund and federal HOME Investment Partnership Program funds – cannot be spent without approval by the General Assembly and Governor Rauner.    

Allow me a moment to put a personal face on this issue.

Our shelters in my tier of the south-side have been dealing with a serious issue of overcrowding this season; specifically, more abused or homeless women and children than we have experienced ever before. 

My site can hold a maximum combination of 40 men, women, and children.  I am also lucky enough to have an overflow sister church that will take men only, just in case too many arrive at my own site for food and shelter.  One night last month saw 36 women and children in my site; 16 of that number were children as young as three months.  Fifteen men at my site volunteered to walk, bike or ride to the other overflow site so the women could find areas on the floors to sleep with their children.

“One of my guests, an older man with severe physical challenges said to me, “If it’s for women and children, count me in.  I’ll find a way over to the other place.”

Now, that’s a man of considerable grace.

According to the report by Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, “Based on the budget passed by the General Assembly in May 2015, resources from these dedicated funds and a small amount of GRF (General Revenue Fund) could fund programs servbing the affordable housing needs of 172,350 people and create or preserve 14,640 units of affordable housing.

The result of this budget impasse and the inability to “free” up money that was specifically designated in Illinois for this cause (without tax consequence) will have ripple effects as well.  Here are some: keeping 3000 unaccompanied and uncared for youth off the streets, supporting over 12,000 people in supportive housing units, preserving 1700 affordable rental units for low-income residents, counseling over 40,000 households in how to avoid foreclosures, and assisting another 140 low-income households in rehabilitating inadequate housing. 

After one year in office, Rauner discussed his rookie term with the Tribune.  “Rauner acknowledges things are hard for some but says Illinois must go through "short-term pain" in order to make long-term gains of a strong economy for decades to come. He contends those gains will happen only if lawmakers pass his sweeping agenda to limit the rights of union workers, toughen standards for employees seeking compensation for injuries on the job, limit expensive payouts in civil lawsuits and freeze local property taxes.”

"Hard for some?"  Really hard when you know the money was already reserved to help them.

A study in contrasts...

Read the entire Chicago Coalition for the Homeless Report.