Media need to change Illinois pension narrative

Covering the passage of a bill to reform the Illinois pension fund is a difficult job – especially if you don’t know the history of the Illinois government and how it has mishandled pensions for decades.

First, most organizations are pointing out that Illinois’ pension has a $100 billion pension shortfall and that approaching that shortfall is paramount to fixing the state’s plummeting credit rating. That’s the easy part of the story and most organizations, including CNN, have managed to do this (CNN story here).

Media have also reported that the law will most likely be challenged in court.  The Chicago Tribune wrote that Illinois unions will certainly try this in court (Tribune story here.)

The Tribune has actually gone on record, taking a stand for passage of the bill (story).

The paper has received some flak for its actions, but its point, that something has to be done to fix a pension that has been so underfunded for so many years that its existence is a major cause for the state’s financial problems, is valid.

But it’s not telling the whole story. The entire story is a difficult story to write, because it takes the time to go back decades and examine the total failure of the Illinois government to do its job. The unions aren’t the bad guys in this story and neither are the teachers and government employees who did their jobs for years in good faith, who pointed out for decades that the Legislature was making mistakes that would come back to haunt them and that those decisions would break the state of Illinois.

Look back through the years and it’s easy to find examples. In 1992, Illinois Governor Jim Edgar diverted 21 million from the pension fund to the general fund. He had to go all the way to the Illinois Supreme Court to do so, but he made it work (Chicago Tribune stories about this here and here). For nearly a decade, Chicago Public Schools paid nothing into the fund. And year after year, politicians dipped into the fund, paying off bills and promising to pay it back. They never did. (story)

And now the unions get blamed. It wasn’t their fault. But that’s not the story now. The story is the fact that Illinois’ pension deficit now eats so deeply into the state’s budget that it has to be reformed. But why not add a paragraph or two into each and every story that explains how Illinois politicians, Democrat and Republican, brought the state to this point and how people warned them of their consequences. Why not remind the audience that the state is now asking those who have worked for years without breaking their contractual promise, that it is now time for them to sacrifice again, for the good of the state.

Illinois’ political problems are well known, well documented and enough of the state’s former governors have proved to be well prosecuted.

But their biggest crime was what they did to their employees over decades. No bill or reform can ever fix that.

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