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Tribune: Poll: Most voters blame politicians, not unions, for pension mess

by Rick Pearson - Chicago Tribune  |  10/16/2012

Illinois voters overwhelmingly blame politicians for creating the state's public employee pension mess, but like elected officials, they're divided about plans to fix the problem, a new Chicago Tribune/WGN-TV poll shows.

The survey also found that Downstate and suburban residents oppose a major push by Democrats including Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Gov. Pat Quinn to gradually shift the costs of teacher retirement benefits on to local school districts outside Chicago.

The issue of public employee pensions is a significant one for Illinois as well as for Chicago and the suburbs. The state has the largest unfunded pension liability in the nation, at least $83 billion. The practical effect: Ratings agencies downgraded the state's creditworthiness because of lawmakers' failure to address the problem, including a do-nothing special legislative session in August. It could cost the state more to borrow money.

Pension costs threaten to gobble up state and city budgets. Quinn has warned that without reforms, the state's annual pension payment is on pace to eclipse funding for education. And Emanuel warned last week that without action in Springfield, the city would need $700 million more just to pay for police and firefighter pensions in 2015.

Moreover, a Tribune/WGN-TV investigation has uncovered several instances of abuse in which union officials and others have benefited from changes in state law to receive lucrative taxpayer-funded pensions.

The poll found that 51 percent blamed the state's politicians alone for Illinois' pension problems while only 2 percent said it was just the fault of public workers. Another 32 percent said they believed it was a combination of state workers and politicians who created the problem.

The finger-pointing at politicians was widespread. Almost half of Chicago and suburban Cook County voters blamed their elected officials, while 55 percent of collar county and 51 percent of Downstate voters put the onus on politicians alone. Fully 55 percent of Democratic voters blamed politicians, but among Republican voters, 47 percent faulted elected officials and 37 percent contended the problem was politicians and state workers acting together.

Brian Foggs, a 29-year-old from the Chicago Lawn neighborhood, blamed politicians for the pension mess, not state workers.

"These people aren't being unreasonable. They just have to take care of bills," said Foggs, a poll respondent.

A study released this spring by the state's Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability found that of $64 billion in increased unfunded pension liability that built up from the 1996 through 2011 budget years, $28.4 billion was due to the failure of government to put enough money into the state's five pension systems.

Quinn's efforts to reform state public pensions have been met with criticism by Illinois' politically powerful public employee unions, who traditionally have been a core ally of Democrats. After lawmakers failed to act in August, the governor promised a grass-roots campaign to help the public understand the depth of the problem, but nearly two months later, there has been nothing.

Late last week, Quinn said his administration was "working on a very good program, I think, that will involve the people of Illinois in this mission" of pension reform.

"We have to have public pensions for the retirement of our public employees, but we have to make fundamental reforms that make it affordable for the public and the taxpayers," he said. "We've talked to a lot of legislators. I think we're going to do pretty well once the (Nov. 6) election comes and goes."

But voters aren't happy with one of Quinn's plans, which also has the backing of Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan and Democratic Senate President John Cullerton. The proposal would gradually shift the state's share of the cost of teacher pensions in suburban and Downstate schools on to local school districts — and local taxpayers.

Republicans have argued repeatedly that such a plan would result in property tax increases or cuts to property tax dollars now dedicated to the classroom. Quinn and others have maintained that by implementing the shift gradually, it would have a minimal effect.

Emanuel has pushed the cost-shift proposal, arguing that Chicago property tax payers already are responsible for the tab for pension benefits to retired Chicago Public Schools teachers. The mayor has said Chicago residents are being double taxed by also contributing to teacher pension benefits for the rest of the state. But opponents contend that Chicago gets more than its fair share of overall state dollars earmarked to schools.

Statewide, the poll found 47 percent of voters rejected the cost-shift proposal, while 32 percent supported it. Another 21 percent didn't know enough about the plan to form an opinion.

Only in Chicago is there much support for the cost-shift plan — 48 percent backed it while 30 percent opposed it. Alicia Burns, 79, was a city taxpayer who supported the idea.

"The districts should cover their pensions and not the state," Burns said. "Chicago does. When you raise your pensions locally, you can do what you want with them."

But the plan isn't gaining traction in places where taxpayers fear they stand to take the hit. In the collar counties, 55 percent said they were against the plan while 35 percent supported. In suburban Cook, 49 percent opposed and 34 percent supported it. And Downstate, 50 percent were opposed while just 21 percent backed the idea.

The proposal also drew 55 percent opposition from white suburban women, moderate voters that include so-called soccer moms especially concerned about education. Only 28 percent of that group backed the cost shift. Among independent voters, a key demographic that influences state elections, the idea was rejected 44 percent to 31 percent.

Voters across the state were even more divided on another plan pushed by Democratic leaders that would alter benefits for current retirees and existing state workers.

Under that plan, workers and retirees could choose to forgo an annual compounded 3 percent cost-of-living increase to their pension in exchange for being able to have access to the state's health insurance program. Workers and pensioners who choose to keep the cost-of-living increase would have to find their own health insurance.

Emanuel has noted that the compounded cost-of-living increase has been a large factor in driving up the unfunded pension liability.

The poll found that 32 percent of the state's voters favored the plan, while 35 percent opposed it — within the survey's 3.7 percentage-point margin of error. Another 33 percent of voters didn't know enough about the proposal to take a side.

Democratic voters opposed the plan 38 percent to 32 percent, but Republicans were slightly more in favor than against, 35 percent to 32 percent. The poll of 700 likely Illinois voters was conducted Oct. 4-8.

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