Was it anything more than a political stunt? Probably not.
Regardless, I support Gov. Pat Quinn’s move last week to suspend his own and lawmakers’ wages until the General Assembly approves sweeping reforms to the state’s five public pension systems, which are underfunded by a worst-in-the-nation $100 billion.
When lawmakers Tuesday missed another Quinn-imposed deadline for a pension-reform deal, the governor used his line-item veto authority on the state’s budget bill to stop paying the salaries.
Many state legislators cried foul.
Rep. David McSweeney, R-Barrington Hills, was not one of them.
“I actually support what Quinn did,” he told members of the Northwest Herald’s Editorial Board on Friday. “It’s a drastic action. It’s not a great precedent to set. But we’re in a crisis.”
Quinn actually stole McSweeney’s idea. The freshman lawmaker who represents portions of Crystal Lake and southeastern McHenry County filed a bill in June to suspend lawmakers’ pay until pension reform got done.
“I disagree with Quinn 95 percent of the time, but I’m not afraid to tell him when I agree with him,” McSweeney said. “But I’ll also tell him it was my idea. ... My bill didn’t go very far. But there’s no way taxpayers should be paying us until we solve pensions.”
Illinois has the lowest credit rating in its history, meaning it costs taxpayers significantly more in interest when the state borrows money. And pension payments are gobbling up more and more of the state’s operating budget, meaning there are fewer dollars to go to actual services.
With apologies to Vince Lombardi, pension reform isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.
McSweeney knows that.
A bipartisan legislative committee is in the process of studying reform measures with hopes of reaching a compromise between competing House and Senate bills.
In addition to capping annual pensions and requiring larger employee contributions, any compromise must drastically reduce the automatic 3 percent cost-of-living increases that state retirees receive each year and end the practice of making them compounded.
“The money’s in the COLAs,” McSweeney said. “They’re unaffordable.”
During his visit, McSweeney said he was more optimistic now than he was two weeks ago that some sort of pension reform will happen.
It’s tough to be optimistic about anything in Springfield nowadays. But I hope he’s right.
• • •
Speaking of optimism: Last week, I had the audacity to say there might be a silver lining in the most recent scandal at Metra.
Because so many people were outraged at the $718,000 golden parachute given to former Metra CEO Alex Clifford in exchange for his silence about patronage and other corruption at the railway agency, I wrote that this might just be the scandal that leads to a much-needed cleanup of Metra and the other Chicago-area transit agencies.
And then came Friday’s bombshell.
A previously confidential memo that Clifford presented to Metra Board members prior to his departure claims the former CEO was forced out of his position at Metra in part because he refused to cave to powerful House Speaker Michael Madigan’s demands to give a raise to one Madigan crony and hire another.
A day earlier, just before a House committee convened to question Metra officials about the outrageous severance payout, Madigan released a statement acknowledging he sought a pay raise for a Metra employee and close political ally. But Madigan’s statement made no mention of Clifford’s other allegation that the speaker also tried to get one of his political cronies hired at the agency.
With so much outrage over the severance deal, Madigan must have known the details in Clifford’s memo were going to be revealed. That explains Thursday’s statement.
Despite the House speaker’s involvement, the House Mass Transit Committee moved forward with the hearing. Good for the committee members.
At the hearing, Metra Board Chairman Brad O’Halloran, who did his best to protect Madigan by keeping Clifford’s allegations secret, and other Metra officials continued to maintain that the departing CEO’s severance had nothing to do with his patronage allegations.
Uh huh. And Chicago politics are as clean as an infant’s rap sheet.
The only Metra official coming out of this unbloodied is McHenry County’s Metra Board representative, Jack Schaffer. He was the only board member to vote against the severance deal, and at Thursday’s hearing he repeated an allegation he made to the Northwest Herald a couple of weeks ago. Schaffer told the legislative committee that the reason Clifford was forced out and given a bunch of hush money was to cover up the corruption at Metra.
“This is $250,000 in severance and $500,000 in hush money,” Schaffer said, according to the Chicago Tribune. “You have not heard the whole story in any way, shape or form.”
But we’re now starting to hear more of the story. The only question is, will anyone with any authority in this state have the courage to push an investigation forward now that Madigan’s in the middle of it?
Clifford, who initially was being treated as the villain because of the taxpayer-supported deal he was getting, is coming out of this more as a victim – and hero. At least he had the guts to stand up to Madigan.
Clifford’s severance agreement still needs to be voided, and he must be able to disclose all the information he has about corruption at Metra.
And O’Halloran and the rest of the Metra Board must go.
• • •
Down, set...: It’s hard to believe that Bears camp opens in less than two weeks.
It’s the middle of July. We should be focused on baseball.
But with the Cubs and Sox as bad as they are, I know I’m ready for some football.
I’m especially excited because of what we have planned here at the Northwest Herald and with our parent company, Shaw Media.
I was on vacation and out of town a couple of weeks ago when we made the exciting announcement that Hub Arkush was joining us to cover the Bears.
As devout Bears and NFL fans know, Arkush was the longtime editor and publisher of Pro Football Weekly, and he remains a senior football analyst with WSCR 670-AM The Score in Chicago.
Arkush starts Monday. He’ll join Northwest Herald’s Chicago-based sportswriter Tom Musick and another new hire, Kevin Fishbain, who worked with Arkush at Pro Football Weekly, in providing comprehensive news and analysis on the Bears this season.
We’ll also be launching a new website in less than two weeks, HubArkush.com, where you’ll find updated Bears news and analysis around the clock, as well as video commentary and more.
The clock is ticking toward another NFL season. I hope you join us for the ride.
• Dan McCaleb is group editor of Shaw Media’s suburban publications, which includes the Northwest Herald. He can be reached at 815-526-4603, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @Dan_McCaleb.