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Quinn unleashes ‘Pension Python’

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Gov. Pat Quinn hopes Squeezy the Pension Python will educate Illinois residents about the need for reform of a badly underfunded pension system.

Local lawmakers, however, say the cartoon character is just another distraction by a governor slithering around the problem.

“I’d prefer that he’d discuss and offer constitutionally accurate pension reform on the website,” said state Sen. Dan Duffy, R-Lake Barrington. “But it’s opening the discussion, and I guess that’s a good thing.”

The website, http://thisismyillinois.com, outlines a brief history of public pensions, its fiscal problems and ways to discuss solutions through social media, part of Quinn’s long-awaited campaign to build public support for an overhaul of Illinois’ underfunded pension system.

The campaign includes an at times tongue-in-cheek video that shows a simplified history of pensions dating to ancient Rome. It details the state’s five public pension systems and says online town hall meetings are coming soon to receive feedback from the public.

State officials said Sunday that the aim is to provide details about Illinois’ fiscal problems in an easy-to-comprehend way and get public feedback. It’s called the “Thanks in Advance” campaign, which is purportedly a message from the next generation to today’s politicians. The website has links to Twitter and a Facebook page.

State Rep. Jack Franks, D-Marengo, said Quinn is trying to make the public aware of a problem of which they’re already aware. “It’s embarrassing,” he said. “We have a very serious situation and he’s not exposing any fixes. He’s repeating that we have a problem, and he’s not leading on the subject at all.”

Incoming State Rep. Barb Wheeler, R-Crystal Lake, said the website seemed like a halfhearted effort to tackle a serious topic. But she agreed with taking pension reform suggestions from outside Springfield.

“If it does that and gains momentum for discussion, I think it’s a good program,” Wheeler said.

Quinn, who has vowed to overhaul the state’s pension system, has promised details of his so-called grass-roots campaign since August, but has pushed back the timeline several times.

Illinois lawmakers have failed to come up with a plan to deal with the roughly $85 billion funding gap, the largest shortfall of any state in the nation. Talks between legislative leaders have gone nowhere and a special session on pension reform earlier this year was unproductive.

Part of the problem has been a disagreement on the approach.

Quinn and other Democrats support a plan under which suburban Chicago and downstate schools would begin picking up their own pension costs, which the state currently pays. Chicago Public Schools already pays its own pension costs.

Illinois Republicans largely have opposed shifting the costs, saying such an approach would cause property taxes to rise.

Duffy, the House’s minority spokesman on the topic, said shifting costs to schools doesn’t solve the underlying problem.

He suggests raising the retirement age to 67, capping pensions at $110,000 a year, reducing or eliminating the cost-of-living adjustment, and stopping people from “double dipping,” or receiving multiple pensions.

“Things like that will solve the problem and help get us back on the path to prosperity,” Duffy said. “We want to give [Quinn] credit for discussing the idea, but we want to discuss solutions.”

Both Duffy and Franks expressed concern that Quinn would rush pension reform during the upcoming lame-duck legislative session.

The governor has said that now the Nov. 6 elections are over, he hopes lawmakers will address the issue. The General Assembly reconvenes later this month.

The governor didn’t offer details on what is next after the launch of his campaign. He said he hoped to start public dialogue.

Quinn has said he believes a pension overhaul can be passed by the end of the legislative session in January.

• The Associated Press contributed to this report

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