Tyrone Fahner is the former attorney general of Illinois and president of the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago. He talked to Ward Room about why voters should approve Amendment 49, a which would change the Illinois constitution to require a three-fifths vote to increase pension benefits for public employees.
Q: Why should people vote for this amendment?
A: Well, you should vote for the amendment because for years increases have been able to be obtained for public employees and their pensions, and all sorts of additional benefits, without any particular attention by the public. The General Assembly, which is controlled by the Democrats in both houses, as well as the governor, continues to do as they will in terms of keeping the teachers' unions and AFSCME and all the rest happy, and they've done that with taxpayers' money, so this would make it more difficult, give greater public scrutiny to any changes in the system.
Q: It's actually not any changes in the system. Why does the amendment only requires a three-fifths majority for increases, but not for decreases?
A: I imagine if anybody wanted to put that part in...first of all, it doesn't because the sponsors didn't introduce it that way. It's not a matter of fairness. The fairness is that the public, 95 percent of the public which are not members of a public employees' pension system, are paying for the largesse of all the rest. So they're the ones that need to be protected. The unions have had free shots for whatever they've wanted over the years, which is one of the reasons the state's in the debt crisis it's in.
Q: Why should this particular function of government require a supermajority? Does this not open the door for requiring a three-fifths majority for wage increases, or contract, or other votes? Why single out this?
A: It comes right back to the fact that not enough attention has been paid to the benefits and the pension increases over the years. The state is in a state of financial ruin. We're 50th out of 50. We're broke and broken. All this says is that someday -- and I don't know if it can be fixed anymore, to tell you the truth, I think we're so far upside down that the whole thing cannot be corrected -- so actually, it's a good piece of legislation, but it's too little, too late. I would still vote for it, and I intend to vote for it.
Q: It's almost as though the legislature feels it can't trust itself to control these pension benefits? Why can't we simply elect a majority that's not going to increase pension benefits?
A: We have a clear history that the members of the General Assembly cannot be trusted and haven't been trusted, are not worthy or trust, and the other reason is, the legislators are one of the groups that are receiving these benefits, and as you'll recall, the tax increase that passed two years ago was done in January, the last day of the closing session, with a whole bunch of lame ducks. They're going to do the same thing, I will promise you. You can write it down now and call me the day after. They're going to pass something they're going to call pension reform, which will not be pension reform, and they'll do it with 20 or 25 people who will have secured their pensions, and will not be responsible, because they'll be out and not have to face the voters again.
Q: What do you say to the opponents' accusations that this is an anti-union measure aimed at the union movement in general, and public employee unions in particular?
A: I guess I would say that the unions in Michigan, where I grew up, destroyed the car companies and the economy, and then we have a Democratic governor, we have a Democratic mayor, we have a Democratic General Assembly. What I would say to them is, they are supported and underwritten by the Illinois Education Association, by AFSCME, by SEIU, and I would tell them that they've just about killed the goose...That's why the state is broke. That's why there's no money for education, that's why there's no money for the elderly, for health care, for the poor, for autism. I could go on and on and on. That's why they should look in the mirror.
Q: If we are able to make it more difficult to increase these pensions, how long will it be before we see any fiscal benefit?
A: I don't know if we ever will. The real thing is, we wouldn't need it if they'd sit down and pass some meaningful pension reform, which they've failed to do and they won't do in January.
Q: This could be taken as, Republicans are unable to win a majority electorally, so they're trying to change the rules.
A: Wasn't the Speaker one of the co-chairs?
Q: Certainly, the legislation passed almost unanimously in both houses.
A: What the Republicans are trying to do is what they're trying to do nationally, which is have some fiscal responsibilty. It's a blue state, it's dominated by the unions. The unions support the General Assembly members. Look at all the money from the Illinois Education Association that goes to the General Assembly members, Republican and Democrat.
Q: So this is a group that's able to spend money and lobby people who have the responsibility for determining their wages and their benefits.
A: Money comes out of every one of their checks, and it's mainlined to support people who will continue to give them more than they deserve.
Q: That's an advantage that other employees don't have anywhere, isn't it?
A: That's exactly right.