Teachers: Don't blame us for mess

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Dennis Byrne's Aug. 10 column on Illinois' financially imperiled pension system struck a nerve. The presidents of the Illinois Education Association and the Illinois Federation of Teachers have responded with an essay that says the Tribune is being used as a "tool of terror." The IEA Web site says the Tribune is "waging a relentless war against public employees over state pensions" and claims the "real author" of Byrne's column was Eden Martin, president of the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago.

In the interest of debate, we present the essay from the IEA and IFT, and a response from Eden Martin.

How much longer will the Chicago Tribune allow itself to be used as a tool of terror by millionaire Eden Martin in his quest to deprive hundreds of thousands of Illinoisans of the reasonable retirement they, in large part, have paid for?

The Aug. 10 opinion piece, ostensibly written by public relations specialist Dennis Byrne, is a blatant attempt to frighten and intimidate innocent people who simply expect the State of Illinois to keep its promises.

Byrne/Martin's claim that the state pension shortfall was caused by overly-generous pension benefits paid to state employees and teachers is provably false. And they know it.

They also know that suggesting that police officers, firefighters, teachers, and state workers could be denied the reasonable retirements promised them is an unconscionable use of a newspaper to force a surrender by those who continue to work hard and well for the people of Illinois.


We, and the 236,000 Illinoisans we represent, believe the facts matter. Even on the opinion page:

FACT -- The state's pension debt was caused by politicians who habitually refused, over decades, to pay the state's modest share of pension costs, using the money instead to stave off needed tax increases. The legislature's bipartisan Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability found that from FY 1996 through FY 2008, the state's pension debt grew by $35.6 billion. Of this, $30.3 billion (85 percent) is the result of factors not attributable to employees (53 percent the state's failure to pay its share, 24 percent early retirement incentives, 8 percent poor stock performance).

FACT -- Four of five state pension system annuitants rely solely on their pensions for survival. By Illinois law, contributors to the Teachers' Retirement System (TRS) and the State University Retirement System (SURS) are barred from receiving full Social Security benefits, even when they have been earned from non-education employment.

FACT -- Public employees contribute significantly to the cost of their pensions. Teachers pay 9.4 percent of their salary directly into TRS. State employees on the alternative formula contribute 8.5 percent of their pay into SERS. And state employees on the standard formula in effect contribute 7 percent of their checks--4 percent deducted, and an additional 3 percent in the form of a pay raise given up in 1998, with the understanding this amount would go directly into the pension fund.

FACT -- The typical retired state employee on the standard formula -- those who do receive Social Security, including the caregiver for the disabled, the child protection worker, the state park employee --earns a pension of about $22,000 a year.

FACT -- Illinois law clearly states that pension payments are "obligations of the State." (40 ILCS 5/16-158(c)). It's clear that Byrne and Martin's scare tactics are nothing more than that.

Respected judges and other legal analysts have also said cutting pension benefits for current public employees is unconstitutional. The law firm which once employed Eden Martin as a partner (from which he retired with a handsome retirement package that a teacher could never even dream of enjoying), has failed to produce a signed opinion that refutes this basic fact.

Eden Martin, Dennis Byrne and the Tribune want the public to forget that the pension shortfall is the result of bad financial management by the state and that the present and future annuitants have always paid their share.

We won't let that happen.

The truth should not be ignored or distorted. Even on the opinion page.

Ed Geppert is president of the Illinois Federation of Teachers. Ken Swanson is president of the Illinois Education Association.