Gov. Rauner takes aim at teacher pensions


ov. Bruce Rauner delivered the annual budget address on Wednesday. Facing reelection, he proposed that the state no longer cover teacher pensions, instead shifting the burden to school districts. (Photo courtesy of Chicago Tribune)

Gov. Bruce Rauner delivered Illinois’ annual budget address Wednesday, saying that Illinois is “in a state of readiness to become the economic powerhouse of the midwest.” Although Rauner seemed to appease his political base, many believe that the address was nothing more than political peacocking during an election year.

Currently, Illinois is in a state of disrepair. It has the worst credit rating of any state in the union with a BBB-, and unpaid bills that cost the state over $1 billion in late fees. Property taxes are among the highest in the nation, infrastructure is crumbling and there is a serious lack of new revenue to help pay a mountain of unpaid bills. As a result, Illinois is experiencing a mass exodus, losing over 33,000 residents in 2017 —more than any other state.

The focal point of the current gubernatorial race has been finding ways to balance the budget, and Rauner believes that his latest proposal will do just that. 

John McCarron is a contributing columnist for the Chicago Tribune and an adjunct professor at DePaul. He was unimpressed with the governor’s new budget proposal.

I can’t look beyond the fact that it seems to be a political document that lets him claim to have a balanced budget. But it hinges on several things that may not even be legally permissible.

— John McCarron

One of the conditions in the budget that has left many, including McCarron, scratching their heads is Rauner’s pension solution. Illinois has a serious pension problem and Rauner did not shy away from the issue, making it the cornerstone of his address.

Rauner’s proposal hopes to save $1.3 billion by shifting teacher pensions from the state to the school districts. Additionally, Rauner hopes to slash health insurance benefits for retired teachers and state employees.

“The last time around the governor ultimately caved, as well he should have, and made paying the Chicago teachers’ pensions part of the school funding reform,” McCarron said. “Now, less than a year after, he is coming back and saying, ‘Oops! We don’t want to pay for that anymore.’”

McCarron acknowledged that Illinois’ crippling pension crisis is a problem with no easy solutions. Currently, there is a clause in the Illinois constitution that prevents the state from diminishing public employee pensions once they are promised.

Jeff Rios, the treasurer of the DePaul Democrats, agreed with McCarron that Rauner’s pension solution is nothing but smoke and mirrors.

“The budget won’t pass,” he said. “It is a political tool to hide the fact that in his first term as governor he has not offered any reasonable solutions to Illinois’ financial problems.”

Nick Kachiroubas, an associate professor at DePaul with an expertise in Illinois politics, echoed the sentiment that Rauner’s budget proposal was a political band-aid in an election year.

“It’s unlikely that the legislature will support him in the pension initiatives,” he said.

Kachiroubas said that while Rauner’s pension solution may shift the burden from the state, the taxpayers are the ones that will end up bearing the brunt of the costs. He said that if the burden is on the school districts it will create a local tax hike that will fall squarely on the shoulders of taxpayers.

“Rauner’s argument is that if we put the responsibility on the local districts, the public will pay a lot more attention to how their money is allocated,” he said.

Kachiroubas argued that while it is important for the state to get the pension problem under control, making this kind of move during an election year is a “political fireball.”

Percy Hatcherson, of the DePaul Socialists, believes that Rauner’s proposal puts all of the burden on the poorest taxpayers and omits the wealthy from paying their fair share.

“Gov. Rauner pitted state employees against factory workers, teachers against taxpayers, Chicago Public Schools students against downstate students, and Illinois against other states,” he said.

Not everyone is unhappy with Rauner, however. The Chicago Tribune’s editorial board recently endorsed him, praising Rauner for being the only governor to stand up to Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan.

Although many have hammered Rauner for the infamous budget impasse, when Illinois was left without a budget for 793 days, the Tribune said his refusal to accept a grossly unbalanced budget demonstrated his moral fiber.

The endorsement comes as a bit of a respite, as Rauner has found himself in an unexpected political dogfight to win his own party nomination against social conservative Jeanne Ives, of the 42nd district.

“If voters elect any Republican, Madigan will again try to make that governor fail,” the Tribune editorial board said. “If that governor is Rauner, you know your governor won’t stop fighting.”

Olivia Polony, Communications Coordinator for the DePaul College Republicans, was also quick to mention the pension problem — though she said Rauner’s solutions are a step in the right direction.

“The big takeaways from us after the budget address is that we see a degree of hope,” she said.

Polony said that many teacher pensions in Illinois have gone unchecked and have gotten out of control. She mentioned that the top 200 teacher pension earners in Illinois all earn over six figures, and her group believes that is too much for the taxpayer to handle.

Polony mentioned retired New Trier superintendent Henry S. Bangster, who retired at age 57 and has already collected over $3 million, according to a report from Chicago Tonight.

“We like (Rauner’s proposal) because it will create more accountability,” she said.

Kathi Griffin, president of The Illinois Education Association (IEA), issued a statement Wednesday that was anything but forgiving of the governor’s plan to shift pension responsibility.

“Gov. Bruce Rauner today unleashed his latest attack on public education and the students of Illinois,” she said. “During his budget address, the governor claimed he would give more money to education, but the pension costs he wants to shift to school districts and our public universities will starve our schools.”

Griffin went on to hammer Rauner for the two-year budget stalemate, and she also had one more message for the governor.

“Gov. Bruce Rauner is choosing to leave the students of Illinois, our state’s future, behind when he should be putting them first and we won’t stand for it,” she said.