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Lyons: Why GOP doesn’t like pension shift proposal

Thanks to the Illinois Policy Institute and the panelists who presented Tuesday night’s debate on whether Illinois should shift the burden for teachers pensions from the state to local school districts in an attempt to alleviate the state’s pension crisis.

School District 47 Board President Jeff Mason, District 155 teacher and Illinois Education Association representative Mike Sayre, and Diana Rickert, media relations director for the Illinois Policy Institute and former Northwest Herald reporter, provided thoughtful answers to questions posed by me, state Rep. Tom Morrison, R-Palatine, and members of the audience.

Rickert and her organization are strong advocates for the shift, reasonably arguing that local school boards are the ones who set salaries and teachers benefits and likely would be more judicious if they were on the hook to pay pension costs in the future.

That sounds like a conservative position befitting the Illinois Policy Institute, which is demonstrating its nonpartisan claim by taking the side of Democrats including Gov. Pat Quinn and House Speaker Mike Madigan.

There were some great points made by panelists, but as the debate moved along, it made me more curious to understand more completely exactly why state Republicans are opposed to the plan. So I met Wednesday with state Rep. Mike Tryon, R-Crystal Lake, whom I spoke with briefly as Tuesday’s event concluded.

Maybe you don’t like politics, but how do you like an $83 billion pension liability. It’s going to take politics to resolve this pension crisis. If it was possible, I became even more skeptical of the chances of any serious resolution on teachers pensions at Friday’s special session of the General Assembly after speaking with Tryon.

Through Tryon’s eyes, as it often is in Springfield, the Democrats’ proposal is Chicago versus the rest of Illinois.

“I don’t have a problem with making school districts more accountable,” Tryon said. “I have a problem with the way it’s being proposed.”

Property taxes in the suburbs outside of Cook County simply aren’t as bad as they are in the rest of the suburbs, including McHenry County. Tryon handed me a photo of Madigan’s lovely, brick Chicago home that is valued at $341,840 with a total property tax bill of $4,917.

In most of McHenry County, a taxpayer would pay at least twice that, and probably more. And nobody runs property tax increase referendums for Chicago schools.

Same story for Quinn, who has a more modest $290,310 home with a similarly modest tax bill of $4,053.

It’s particularly interesting when you take a look at a chart that state Republicans have put together examining property tax levy rates for Chicago Public Schools compared with combined rates in School Districts 47 and 155.

In Chicago, the levy rate continuously declined from $4.323 per $100 of assessed valuation in 1994 to almost half that rate to $2.583 in 2008.

It was a different story in Crystal Lake, where the rate was $5.20 per $100 of assessed valuation in 1994, and remained relatively steady until it eventually dropped to $4.539 in 2008.

Sure, Chicagoans pay more for sales tax and other things, but property taxes are how we fund suburban schools. So shifting any school funding burden toward property taxpayers puts suburban and downstate residents at a disadvantage.

There are other issues Republicans have with the Democrats’ proposal, but the question of what’s fair for suburban and downstate residents is fairly central to their opposition.

• Kevin Lyons is news editor of the Northwest Herald. Reach him at 815-526-4505 or email him at kelyons@shawmedia.com.

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