(MCT) — After months of promising a major grass-roots effort to win public support for reforming the state's government worker pension system, Gov. Pat Quinn on Sunday unveiled a plan that featured an incomplete online strategy, children wearing red plastic megaphones and an animated "Squeezy the Pension Python" mascot.
There were, however, no solutions offered on how to fix the nation's most underfunded retirement system.
The Democratic governor, known for a style that sometimes veers into the corny, attempted to jump-start the pension overhaul push by lauding the power of "the people of Illinois, good and true" through what he called the "electronic democracy" of Twitter and Facebook. Quinn went so far as to encourage families gathering at the Thanksgiving dinner table to "speak to each other" about the pension crisis.
The approach left some lawmakers questioning whether the governor demeaned the severity of one of the most pressing unresolved problems facing state government in Illinois. State Rep. Jack Franks, D-Marengo, called Quinn's strategy "juvenile."
"If he wants to do a grass-roots campaign, he should talk to the people directly about his proposal. But he doesn't even have one, which is why we can't get anything done. You can't follow someone who doesn't lead," Franks said.
"This has to be comprehensive reform. It can't be done in a vacuum and it can't be done with slogans and it certainly can't be done with cartoon characters," Franks said. "It's going to take some hard work."
Rep. Elaine Nekritz, of Northbrook, the lead pension reform negotiator for House Democrats, was more diplomatic.
"This is one way we can help build support for a solution," she said, "but we need to continue making sure that the right people are at the table and that we are focused on getting votes on legislation."
Quinn made reforming the state's pension systems a priority in the spring, but lawmakers left the Capitol without acting. In August, the governor summoned lawmakers into a fruitless special session on pensions when he had no reform plan on the table. After that failure, Quinn promised a grass-roots marketing plan, the one he delivered three months later on Sunday.
The pension system's unfunded liability now is estimated to be at least $96 billion. The governor has warned that without changes, future funding for public employee retirement will put the squeeze on state funding for education and social services. That led to the introduction of "Squeezy" about midway through a 3-minute, 44-second video produced in-house by the governor's office.
The strategy includes a website featuring a video on the history of pensions since ancient Rome and a chorus of children shouting "Thanks in advance" for fixing the retirement system. Quinn appeared at a Thompson Center news conference with about 15 children who wore red plastic megaphones with "Thanks in advance" stickers.
"This is not going to be solved just by the (politicians) in Springfield," Quinn said. "The people of Illinois are the heart and soul of our government ... and many times, citizens are ahead of legislators when it comes to demanding reform. We need to make sure those citizens get the facts they need about an important issue. I have fundamental faith in the common sense of the everyday people of Illinois."
The website offers no solutions on how the state's pension systems should be reformed. House Republican leader Tom Cross, of Oswego, who recently has adopted a conciliatory attitude toward the Democratic governor, said that while "the ideas may not be in (Quinn's marketing plan), I still think the fact that he is taking a step like this, I am going to view it as positive."
"I am still not sure that the public has accepted the facts and understands the ramifications of not doing pension reform," Cross said. "And what I mean by that is, if we do not do pension reform soon, not only may we not have a pension system, we may not have enough money to fund education or build roads and fix schools."
Lawmakers have considered but failed to enact plans that include giving current state employees the option of keeping a compounded cost-of-living increase for their pensions at the expense of adding future salary increases to their benefit base and forcing them to find their own retiree health insurance. Those that forgo the compounded increases would see future salary hikes included in their pension benefits and would have access to state health insurance at retirement.
Even before Quinn launched his marketing plan, the We Are Illinois coalition of labor unions contended the proposal was a "coercive diminishment" of modest retirement benefits and not a "real solution." The union group also warned it was a violation of the Illinois Constitution's guarantee of pension benefits and would "lead to costly litigation while the pension debt grows."
The governor's effort represents a back-to-the-future approach, attempting to merge his decades-long populist roots with modern social media tools. He invoked his history of petition drives stretching back more than 30 years that curbed the size of the legislature and altered lawmaker pay. Quinn even reverted to one of his political hallmarks, the Sunday news conference, to gain publicity on a traditionally slow news day.
Still, as he took questions from reporters, Quinn stopped short of his previous demand that any comprehensive pension plan should gradually shift the cost of pensions for teachers outside Chicago from the state onto local school districts — and local property taxpayers. Suburban Republicans and Democrats have adamantly opposed the cost shift.
While lawmakers are prepared to begin their postelection lame duck veto session during the final week of November, Quinn said he expected any action on pensions would not occur until January. The new year brings a lower voting requirement in the legislature to enact legislation.
The new website, thisismyillinois.com, remains a work in progress. It urges followers to "think web cam" to post pictures or videos on a related Facebook page that Quinn promised will be "shared with the legislators in Springfield."
There also are perils when it comes to social media. A Facebook search of "Governor Pat Quinn" turned up results that led with pages that called for the Democratic governor's removal from office. The same search on Twitter linked directly to Quinn's official account.