Tribune, 'tool of terror'

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Yes, Rod Blagojevich had his federally recorded tantrums about the opinion pages of this newspaper. But for all his sworn spluttering, the then-governor stopped short of exposing what the Illinois Federation of Teachers and Illinois Education Association now reveal: that the Tribune allows itself "to be used as a tool of terror." How? By printing "a blatant attempt to frighten and intimidate innocent people." The diabolical plot? "An unconscionable use of a newspaper to force a surrender by those who continue to work hard and well for the people of Illinois."

Whew. There's more:

The accused terrorist who exploits a willing Tribune — and let's pause here to thank the teachers unions for dropping a dime on this marauder — is R. Eden Martin. He's an attorney who heads the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago. He researches and writes about Illinois' public pension system — the nation's most critically underfunded.

Martin infuriated the unions by providing Tribune columnist Dennis Byrne with a legal opinion offered by Martin's old Chicago law firm, Sidley Austin. The broader context is a projection by Joshua Rauh, a public finance expert at Northwestern University's Kellogg School, that Illinois' pension funds could run out of money in eight years.

Byrne's resulting Aug. 10 column — the unions incorrectly suggest that Byrne didn't write it — explained Sidley's findings: If Illinois pension funds run out of money, state taxpayers aren't legally obligated to step in and pay retirees their pensions: "The opinion acknowledges that the (Illinois) constitution creates a contractual agreement between the workers and the state's employee pension funds," Byrne reported. "But it concludes that neither the constitution nor the law say the state is a guarantor of that obligation."

Byrne wrote that while the state often has shorted the pension funds, "if we're to climb out of this nightmare, everyone will have to sacrifice. That includes public employees who, Martin notes, should get on board to work out some solutions. They might have to put up with some small sacrifices, but it's better than waiting until the well runs dry."

As terrorist acts go, a newspaper column that explains a legal opinion — and urges employees to help keep their own pension funds solvent — may strike you as fairly benign. But teachers union officials reacted to this "pension attack" by submitting their "tool-of-terror" response to the Tribune. You'll find it across the way on today's Commentary page.

We offered the accused terrorist Martin a chance to respond. His essay, too, appears on the Commentary page.

The Byrne column awaits you at And the four-page Sidley Austin legal opinion is at

No, you may not shirk this summer reading because you fear aiding and abetting terrorism. The stakes are substantial — for taxpayers but also for teachers and other public employees who rely on the perpetual health of Illinois' pension funds.

Unless all of us come together to improve their trajectory, those funds are doomed to disappoint untold thousands of workers. Each of those workers ought to be urging his or her union officials to help forge the solution that secures future pension payments.

We realize that the teachers union officials think publishing commentary about who'll be sorely out of luck if pension funds fail is an act of terror. Better they make sure the funds don't continue to deteriorate on their watch.