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Teachers’ support for Hynes makes sense, even to Quinn

by Danny Yadron
Dec 08, 2009

If you could pick your boss, wouldn’t you go with the guy who promises better benefits?

It’s the reason few in Illinois said they were surprised Monday when the state’s main teachers union threw the might of its six-figure fundraising machine behind the current state comptroller, not the sitting governor, in next year’s election.

Amid a throng of teachers and union leaders, Illinois Federation of Teachers officials said they’ll back Comptroller Dan Hynes in February’s Democratic primary because, among other things, he supports maintaining pension benefits for new public school teachers – the opposite of a Gov. Pat Quinn proposal in light of the state’s $75 billion unfunded pension liability.

It’s simple, really.

“There are two kinds of endorsements,” said Don Rose, a longtime Chicago political consultant. “There are those that are professional and those that are business. This was business.”

Quinn never said he wants to cut pensions for current teachers. It’s unconstitutional in Illinois to change retirement benefits for state employees, and even if it wasn’t, Quinn said Monday he doesn’t support the idea.

But the governor renewed his push for a two-tier system, one that offers less hearty benefits to new state hires, including public school teachers.

“They’re still going to have a pension, a very generous one, far more generous than many people,” Quinn said to a group of reporters Monday. “But we cannot continue on the path we’re on … that is the path to insolvency.”

Illinois has the worst unfunded public pension liability in the nation, according to a study by the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability, an Illinois taxpayer think tank. The number measures the difference between what the state owes in contributions to various pension funds and what it actually pays.

In 1995, Gov. Jim Edgar and the General Assembly pushed to fund 90 percent of the liability – at the time about $20 billion – by 2045. But since then, the debt has skyrocketed.

At this point, the only way to fix the problem is for the state to pay its way out of the hole, said Bukola Bello, head of the retirement security initiative at the center. She said it’s too late for a two-tier system to be the solution and that the answer now lies in a combination of taxes and service cuts.

“Ultimately those things do nothing to reduce the unfunded liabilities,” she said. “Do you go toward the shiny, new plan or do you fix the foundation in your house?”

It was the same argument union leaders made Monday.

Pension supporters said altering benefits for new hires would do nothing to dig Illinois out of its fiscal hole. And even if it could lead to some small savings in the long run, it’s not worth the damage it’d wreak in teachers lounges, said John Murphy, an IFT vice president.

“You either attract better teachers and you keep people in the system,” Murphy said. “Or in fact you have a sort of double situation in the work place where some people are paid better or provided better benefits than others.”

The GOP, for its part, has managed to sit out the latest campaign feud because “Republicans really don’t respond well to issues that unions find important,” as former GOP state Sen. Steve Rauschenberger put it.

But Rauschenberger, a former chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said he thinks Democrats have thrown practicality out the window to gain support at the polls.

“They somehow you believe you can turn straw into gold,” said Rauschenberger, who now runs a lobbying firm. “The Democrats have to face up to the fact that they have to make some hard decisions.”

Statewide candidates have long prized major union endorsements, which bring donations, free advertising and a standing army of motivated foot soldiers. With about 100,000 members, the IFT donated more than $642,000 to Gov. Rod Blagojevich in 2002 and nearly $525,000 in 2006, according to Board of Election records.

Hynes was effusive on Monday: “We all have a responsibility for the best education and the brightest future. That is why this endorsement means so much to me more than any other benefit that comes along with it.”

Although Quinn said he was disappointed in not receiving the IFT endorsement, the news wasn’t all bad. While Hynes spent Monday touting education, the governor noted that the Illinois Sierra Club had just declared him the “strongest environmental advocate Illinois has ever had in a statewide office.”

The group never donated to Blagojevich’s campaign, according to state records, but did help fund Lisa Madigan’s attorney general campaigns in 2002 and 2006.

Sierra Club’s contribution total during those four years: $ 3,615.75.