McCaleb: Pension reform takes back seat

State lawmakers continue to twiddle their thumbs on pension reform, arguably the most significant issue facing Illinois in a generation.

Separate reform bills passed by the House and the Senate have lingered for nearly two weeks now.

But what’s the hurry, right? There still are two weeks remaining in the spring legislative session.

Never mind that the state’s five failing public pension systems are underfunded by more than $96 billion. Or that that number grows by about $17 million a day.

You’d think these staggering numbers would be enough to spur action by our legislative leaders.

So what’s taking so long?

Well, there apparently are more burning issues in Springfield.

Count legalizing medical marijuana as one.

That’s right. Illinois Senators on Friday joined their colleagues in the House in passing a bill that will allow doctors to prescribe marijuana to patients with specific terminal illnesses. The vote in the Senate was 35-21 in favor.

Of McHenry County’s legislators, Sen. Pam Althoff, R-McHenry, voted with the majority while Sens. Dan Duffy, R-Lake Barrington, and Karen McConnaughay, R-St. Charles, opposed.

Last month, the House voted 61-57 to legalize medical marijuana as part of a four-year pilot program. With the Senate’s approval, the bill now moves to Gov. Pat Quinn, who has not indicated whether he will sign or veto it.

I don’t dispute that there are some merits – as well as significant risks – to legalizing medical marijuana. But with our state facing fiscal insolvency, should legislators be spending time on this issue?

Of course not.

As every day passes, we get closer to the time when more taxpayer money will be spent on retired public employees than current ones. That means deteriorating public services, including in our schools.

Our message to our elected representatives and senators in Springfield should be this: Enough of the nonsense! Get back to work on our precarious fiscal situation. Pass meaningful pension reform – that excludes the bill that passed the Senate – now!

By tomorrow, we’re another $18 million in the hole.

• • •

Pat on the back: I spend enough time and space berating elected officials when I think they’re doing a bad job. I should acknowledge them when they accomplish something in the public’s interest.

State Rep. Jack Franks, D-Marengo, and Sen. Duffy managed to get legislation passed through the General Assembly that eliminates pension and insurance benefits for future appointees to Chicago-area mass-transit boards.

One of the many reasons this state is going broke is because far too many undeserving people are eating at the public trough. Part-time members of state boards (or less than part-time – some don’t event meet once a month) should not qualify for taxpayer-funded insurance or pension benefits.

With help from Duffy, Franks bill passed the Senate on a 54-0 vote last week. It was approved by the House in April, 106-0.

These transit board members already are paid a decent public salary for the work they do. An RTA board member receives $25,000 a year, a CTA board member gets $20,000, and a Metra board member is paid $15,000 annually.

I encourage Franks, Duffy and McHenry County’s other lawmakers to get similar legislation passed for this state’s many other less-than-part-time boards.

• • •

Chilly night: Despite near freezing temperatures, more than 300 people spent last Saturday night in tents, cardboard boxes and other makeshift shelters at Living Waters Lutheran Church to support programming for McHenry County’s homeless population. With other participants throughout the county, more than 550 participated this year, according to Christin Kruse, chief development officer at Pioneer Center for Human Services.

The fourth annual SleepOut for Shelter unofficially raised about $65,000 for McHenry County PADS, a division of Pioneer Center. I say “unofficial” because pledges still were being tabulated late last week.

As a member of Pioneer Center’s Board of Directors, I want to thank all the volunteers and participants who made this year’s fundraiser such a huge success. That includes Pastor Carol Gates and the Living Waters Lutheran Church, which hosted the event.

Special thanks also go out to Vince Foglia and Sage Products, the Cary-based company that Foglia founded. They have been huge supporters of PADS and SleepOut for years. Foglia also helped to inspire Lake County PADS to join in the efforts. Lake County PADS raised just under $60,000 with its SleepOut event, its largest fundraiser ever.

Barb Swanson, Pioneer’s community outreach and special events coordinator, also deserves a shoutout for organizing such an outstanding event.

Thanks again to all.

• Dan McCaleb of Crystal Lake is group editor of Shaw Media’s suburban publications, which include 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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