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Why is state teachers’ union opposed to open pension debate?

SPRINGFIELD – Most think of educators as people who strive to foster dialog, debate and discussion.

That’s what makes the Illinois Federation of Teachers’ actions so disappointing.

The state’s second-largest teachers union recently demanded the resignation of Richard Ingram, the head of the Illinois Teachers’ Retirement System.

His alleged sin?

He dared to talk about reining in the annual cost-of-living adjustments, or COLAs, provided for retirees.

Mind you, he didn’t propose an Illinois-specific solution. He just noted to a reporter that other states have tried it.

Here is what Crain’s quoted Ingram as saying:

“Look at every other state that’s done pension reform – what have they done? They’ve changed the COLA because that’s where the cost is.”

And he added, “If that is where we need to go in Illinois, then we can do it in a manner that is targeted and effective and protects those that need it the most and, at least to a large extent, get the job done.”

That was too much for IFT President Dan Montgomery. He issued a news release calling for Ingram to resign.

In a free society that values civil discourse, the best response to someone saying something you disagree with is to offer your own rebuttal. At least that was what my teachers taught me, some of whom were IFT members.

Teachers unions long have prided themselves as champions of free speech and academic freedom. But it appears they don’t always practice what they preach.

When pondering how to solve the state’s pension crisis, we should expect many ideas to be considered. Teachers are just one stakeholder in this debate. Taxpayers are another.

Rest assured, the IFT’s voice will be heard. It is one of the most powerful political players in the state. Apparently, the IFT believes free speech is something worth protecting – as long as they agree with it. Why else would they be calling for Mr. Ingram to lose his job?

Some states have addressed the pension crisis by trimming COLAs for people collecting huge pensions but protected it for folks making less.

For example, former New Trier Superintendent Henry Bangser, now collects a TRS pension of $269,520. And he is guaranteed a fat, compounded cost-of-living of adjustment every year for the rest of his life.

Why not eliminate the COLA for people like Bangser in order to protect the future solvency of the pension system for the hardworking teachers who will receive far less in their retirements?

It would seem a progressive idea.

But Montgomery had this to say in his prepared statement: “It is inappropriate for Mr. Ingram, who is responsible for safeguarding the retirement benefits of 360,000 teachers, to promote his personal views by advocating for the destruction of TRS members’ retirement security.”

Montgomery also insists that everyone adhere to the same legal interpretation of the state Constitution and pensions that he holds.

One thing is certain, if Illinois does nothing, the Teachers’ Retirement System eventually will go broke.

The key to finding solutions rests in a free and open debate.

TRS spokesman Dave Urbanek said Ingram is not going to resign.

“Difficult decisions have to be made, and there is bound to be differences of opinion,” he said.

• Scott Reeder is a veteran statehouse reporter and the journalist in residence at the Illinois Policy Institute. He can be reached at sreeder@illinoispolicy.org.

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