McCaleb: Lack of pension reform disappoints local pols

State lawmakers from McHenry County offered different responses when asked Friday what they most were proud of during the legislation session that ended last week.

As for their biggest disappointment, they all are in agreement. Without hesitation, each said the lack of any action on pension reform.

Any other response would have been, well, disappointing.

The state's five public pensions systems are underfunded by more than $80 billion. Because of a built-in cost-of-living increase that grants pensioners a compounded 3 percent raise each year, costs are skyrocketing annually.

More and more of the state's operating budget is spent paying retirees than on actual services. And the state's credit rating, already among the worst in the nation, could be downgraded even further without a fix. That means it would cost Illinois even more to borrow money.

State Rep. Jack Franks, D-Marengo, said the primary reason pension reform didn't happen was a lack of leadership from Gov. Pat Quinn. He said as much on the House floor on the last night of the legislative session.

"I called the governor out [Thursday] night," Franks said. "There's no leadership from him on this whatsoever. Is the governor even relevant? Where was he [Thursday] night? I said, 'Keep us here. Let's have a special session now. Let's have a Committee of the Whole.' It was an appalling lack of leadership."

But House Speaker Mike Madigan deserves as much of the blame, said Rep. Mike Tryon, R-Crystal Lake.

"Madigan shows up with a bill with a component that we absolutely were opposed to, and he expects us to debate it and pass it in 24 hours," Tryon said. "That was insane."

Tryon and other Republicans opposed Madigan's proposal to shift the burden of teachers' pensions from the state to local school districts, something they say would lead to higher increases in property taxes.

State Sen. Pam Althoff, R-McHenry, said lawmakers must reconvene in a special session this summer to pass pension reform, and it has to start with the cost-of-living adjustments.

"It's become abundantly clear to individuals that we have to sit down and get this resolved," Althoff said. "I think all the union representatives understand that we are deadly serious that we have to do something. The biggest issue is the COLAs. We owe it to everyone to fix this."

Tryon said any solution has to be constitutional, and should not affect those already retired. He said the Attorney General's Office should work with lawmakers so any pension reform passes legal muster.

• • •

Not all bad: Each of the lawmakers said they were happy with much of the work they got done.

Althoff and Tryon touted Medicaid reform, which cut costs and created more checks and balances to reduce fraud.

"It's very difficult to have taken away so many options, but the fact that we were able to reduce spending by $1.6 billion and also issue the eligibility verification and address the fraud is significant" and might have saved the program, she said.

"Clearly, Medicaid reform was the cornerstone of what we accomplished," Tryon said. "We rolled back a lot of the [expenses] that Rod Blagojevich added. ... We saved $1.6 billion. That's historic."

Franks said he favored much of what was in the pension reform legislation but voted against it because of a couple of provisions, including that it "got rid of home health care money, which is only going to drive more people into nursing homes, which cost more. It just wasn't smart."

Franks also touted passage of his Caylee's Law legislation, written in response to the Caylee Anthony case, which makes it a felony to fail to report a missing child. And he trumpeted a couple of bills he sponsored that give taxpayers better access to government information, including his bill to add municipal, county and township employee salaries to the state's searchable database.

Althoff highlighted her legislation renewing two of the state's five enterprise zones and making the process more transparent, and the Illinois Procurement Bill of which she was the chief sponsor. The procurement legislation cleans up several codes that regulate how private corporations are to do business with the state.

"Our business vendors who deal with the state of Illinois now have very clear guidelines on what the process is," she said.

Tryon said he was pleased to pass the Clean Water Funding Fairness Act through the General Assembly. It closes loopholes that allowed the livestock industry to avoid paying fees for Clean Water Act permits and will help protect Illinois waterways from pollution.

All in all, it was an eventful session. But there's plenty of work to be done.

• • •

Service gap: The collapse of Family Service and Community Mental Health Center is disturbing. While the McHenry County Mental Health Board, the United Way of McHenry County, and other social service agencies are rallying as best they can to fill service gaps, it's likely going to be a rocky transitional road.

The center served at least a couple of thousand active clients, most with mental illnesses or drug addictions, and no single agency in McHenry County has the personnel, training or certification to pick up all the programming that Family Service offered.

The United Way has created a special emergency account to raise money to help fund services that will be picked up by other agencies.

If you can contribute, visit the United Way's website at www.uwmchenry.org.

Once the dust settles and the service gaps are filled, the mental health and social service community must examine what happened at Family Service with a goal of preventing something similar from happening in the future.

While late payments and cutbacks from the state are a contributing factor, better institutional controls need to be in place so those in need of services aren't left without them.

• • •

Our top speller: Congratulations to Lucas Urbanski, 12, of Crystal Lake, who represented McHenry County well last week at the Scripps National Spelling Bee in Washington D.C.

The Northwest Herald sent Urbanski to Washington after he won the county bee – for the second straight year – in March. Urbanski, a sixth-grader at Immanuel Lutheran School, finished tied for 51st place out of 278 spellers who qualified for the national bee, and just one spot out of the semifinals.

• • •

Who's the best?: More than 360,000 votes were cast this year in our annual Best of the Fox Readers Choice contest, in which area residents picked their favorites in 153 categories, such as best local restaurants, retailers and employers.

We're close to naming the winners. Find out how your favorites fared in our annual Best of the Fox special section, which publishes next Sunday.

• Dan McCaleb is senior editor of the Northwest Herald. He can be reached at 815-526-4603 or by email at dmccaleb@shawmedia.com.

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