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Who’s getting the free lunch?

Published: Sunday, April 7, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT

(Continued from Page 2)

Politicians cherry-pick numbers all the time to push whatever policy issue is at the top of their agenda.

During last year’s presidential campaign, President Barack Obama and his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, often came to completely opposite conclusions – about the economy, about job growth, about health care reform – by distorting whichever set of numbers they could find that fit their argument best.

It’s frustrating. It’s maddening. And to many, it’s confusing.

So when politicians start pointing to their charts and graphs and demand that something new be done to fix whatever they claim is wrong with the numbers on said charts and graphs, I usually ignore it.

But I can’t ignore the recent attempt by Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan to cherry-pick data to boost his proposal to shift the burden of teacher pension costs from the state to local school districts.

As part of the ongoing pension reform debate, Madigan claimed that suburban and downstate schools are getting a “free lunch” from the state on teacher pensions. Illinois’ five public pension systems are underfunded by more than $95 billion and counting, and reversing this crisis finally has become priority No. 1 in Springfield.

To support his proposal to shift teacher pension costs to local school districts, Madigan pointed out, correctly, that 98 percent of the $641 million the state spends on teacher pensions each year go to suburban and downstate schools. Those same schools, he argues, educate just 82 percent of the state’s students. Chicago Public Schools, where 18 percent of the state’s students attend, receive just 2 percent of state government’s pension contributions.

If that money were to be divided solely based on enrollment, suburban and downstate schools would have to forfeit about $104 million each year to Chicago Public Schools. Or, as Madigan is proposing, suburban and downstate school districts would pick up all of their own pension costs, relieving the state from its burden entirely.

But Madigan, of course, is telling just one small part of the story.

Senate Republicans recently analyzed all facets of education funding in Illinois. Sen. Pam Althoff, R-McHenry, visited with members of the Northwest Herald’s Editorial Board late last week to share the findings.

When state funding for early childhood education, poverty grants, PTELL grants, special education and other revenue sources are taken into account and compared with the same enrollment percentages that Madigan used, Chicago Public Schools actually receive $772 million more than their fair share annually.

Hmmm.

For example, while 18 percent of Illinois students attend public school in Chicago, CPS receives 49 percent of all state PTELL dollars, 37 percent of all early childhood education funding, and 30 percent of special education funding.

Also, 31 percent of the state’s low-income children attend school in Chicago. Yet CPS receives 47 percent of all state poverty grant dollars.

So who, exactly, is getting the free lunch, Speaker Madigan?

McHenry and other suburban counties have been donor counties for decades. Residents here pay far more in taxes than they receive in services. We know that. Madigan knows that.

In concept, I actually agree that local school districts should be responsible for their employees’ pension costs. Local school boards approve the salaries that determine pensions, so why shouldn’t they be responsible for those pension costs?

But in reality, education funding in Illinois is such a tangled web, and it’s taken decades for the state to get into the pension mess that it’s in, shifting pension costs is not a short-term solution. It would crush the local school districts.

Over time and after a careful plan is put into place, maybe.

Lawmakers have to fix the real problems that are crippling the public pension systems, and by extension the state budget. Employees need to contribute more. The retirement age needs to increase. Annual pension payouts need to be capped. And the compounded cost-of-living increases need to go away.

Until those things happen, Madigan and his cronies should stop the “free lunch” nonsense.

• • •

Don’t forget to vote: Tuesday is Election Day. Are you prepared to vote?

Unfortunately, far too few voters turn out at the polls for the Consolidated Municipal Election, even though we elect the people who affect us the most.

On the ballot are races for school boards, city councils, village boards, township offices and more.

In April 2011, the last municipal election, just 12.6 percent of McHenry County voters cast a ballot. In April 2009, turnout was 15.8 percent, and in 2007 it was 17.1 percent.

As you can see, turnout has declined steadily.

McHenry County Clerk Katherine Schultz said she expects turnout somewhere between 15 percent and 17 percent this time, “hopefully closer to 17.”

But even 17 percent turnout is pathetic.

Polls will be open from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday. Lines won’t be long anywhere. Visit elections.nwherald.com for more information on the races.

If you haven’t already, please, please, please plan to vote on Tuesday.

It’s your civic responsibility.

• Crystal Lake resident Dan McCaleb is group editor for Shaw Media’s suburban publications, which include the Northwest Herald. He can be reached at 815-526-4603, or by email at dmccaleb@shawmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at @Dan_McCaleb.

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