A Cracking Veneer

heavily tweeked aerial shot of downtown and industrial Chicago
I’ve been away.  To Puerto Rico, ironically, which like Illinois is bankrupt, but which is free of the pretensions of grandeur that make living in Chicago, Illinois such a political and spiritual nightmare.

While I’ve been away,

A woman fleeing a gang of 10 youths in Streeterville ran out onto the Drive, where she was killed by a car.

Sixty-nine people were shot over the holiday weekend, 6 fatally.

The City of Chicago paid $2 million to settle a lawsuit that whistle-blowing cops had brought, heading off a trial that would have centered on the police department’s code of silence.  Mayor Emanuel, who was to have been called to testify, figured this was a good use of citizens’ money.  What use is justice here anymore, anyway?

In the state capital, the legislature once again ended its spring session without passing a budget.  The legislature has now failed of its duty for two years.  According to the website Truth in Accounting, Illinois’s debt burden is $187 billion.  Others place it at $148 billion.  Illinois lawmakers are too cowardly to face the pain entailed in getting the state’s finances back in balance again.  It’s difficult to divine why they are in office.

Chicago is a microcosm of all that troubles the nation now.  The racial divisions, out-of-control violence, and public corruption are corrosive.  Public order is fragile and in jeopardy.  Over all this is a posturing ‘leadership’ that cares mainly for reputation and the superiority of being part of a political elite.

Image © Susan Barsy

Factor Rauner In

After getting off to a wobbly start, Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner has begun to speak truth to power. While a nervous media has attempted to portray the governor and state legislature as equally responsible for the State’s impoverished condition, he has rightly insisted that the budget is the bailiwick of the legislature.  (Click here for his latest on the budget impasse.)

After years of overspending, mismanagement, and corruption, Illinois government is in the throes of an all-out economic crisis.  Yet the Democratic-controlled legislature continues shilly-shallying.  That body, whose lack of prudence over decades has created this disaster, is still evading responsibility.  Rather than face the music, the legislature’s top priority is shifting blame.

Meanwhile, legislators have failed to kick into emergency mode and make the painful decisions necessary to keep the government running and avoid defaulting on its obligations.  The state can no longer pay its bills and has been without a budget for weeks, with penalties accruing.  Do members of the Illinois House and Senate, whatever their party affiliation, really want to be associated with a bankruptcy?  Do they want to be remembered as the individuals who did nothing, who failed to be heroic, as the public sector’s finances tanked?

To say that the situation reflects poorly on the long-dominant Democratic party is putting it mildly.  Though the self-interested rule of House Speaker Mike Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton has been unbreakable, some cracks in their monolithic organizational control have begun appearing.  As the crisis builds, some legislators see that, when the state goes down, their careers and reputations will be destroyed too.  Some may begin to buck the status quo.  If only they would break rank, the power of Mike Madigan would at last be destroyed.

Governor Rauner has begun to work these fault lines.  He has wisely refused to be drawn in to the budget crisis (it isn’t his job), thereby exposing the legislature’s ineptitude and lack of resolve.  Mike Madigan has begun looking like a silly befuddled wizard, with an inadequate inventory of smoke and mirrors.  On September 2, he failed to secure enough votes to override the Governor’s veto of a labor bill that would have excluded the governor from negotiations with unions.

The override failed by one vote, and the public has now heard from the brave Democratic legislator who chose to absent himself rather than act as Speaker Madigan’s lackey.  Ken Dunkin, a Chicago-area representative and former chair of the Legislative Black Caucus, said afterward that his action was a refusal to ‘wear the jacket.’   Despite being widely criticized by fellow legislators and publicly chastised by Speaker Madigan (!), Dunkin told reporter Charles Thomas afterward that his duty is to work for the economic empowerment of struggling African-Americans in Chicago, a crusade that might involve finding common ground with Governor Rauner.

These developments are sweet to every Illinoisan longing for public integrity and economy, and for an end to Mike Madigan’s iniquitous reign.

Another Illinois politico goes down

Cameramen waiting for Hastert, © 2015 Susan Barsy

June 9.  The cameramen shooting the breeze near the entry to the Dirksen Federal Courthouse meant that something big was happening.  It turned out to be the arraignment of former House Speaker Dennis Hastert. Continue reading

Subject Illinois’s Pension-Protection Clause To Federal Challenge

The state’s deepening fiscal crisis will end when an ordinary citizen, who is not a public employee, successfully challenges the Illinois constitution’s ‘pension-protection clause’ in a federal court.

The pension-protection clause is vulnerable to challenge because it violates the US Constitution’s guarantee that all citizens are entitled to equal protection under the law. Whereas the Fourteenth Amendment forbids any state from denying ‘any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws,’ the pension clause of the Illinois constitution defines a special class of citizens and protects it at the expense of others.  For too long, Illinois citizens have been told that they must live by this extraordinarily punitive and unfair provision, which is driving up the cost of government to benefit just one sub-population: public employees whose pensions and benefits the state guarantees.

Illinoisans are so used to living with this provision of their constitution that they don’t even stop to think how extraordinary it is. What other monetary benefit in our society enjoys such a complete guarantee? Medicare? No. Social Security? No. Private pensions? No. Food stamps? No. Despite Americans’ extensive reliance on such benefits, none of them enjoys a constitutional guarantee. Any of these benefits can be changed, diminished, or completely taken away.

Whereas the ordinary Illinois citizen must tolerate uncertainty, those lucky enough to belong to the ‘right club’ can be confident that their benefits can never be lessened or removed.  Illinois’s pension-protection clause defines a special class of citizens in terms of their distinctive relationship to the state and then confers unassailable privileges on them.  Article 13, section 5, of the state constitution states

Membership in any pension or retirement system of the
State, any unit of local government or school district, or
any agency or instrumentality thereof, shall be an
enforceable contractual relationship, the benefits of which
shall not be diminished or impaired.

“Membership . . . shall be a relationship”: that’s the key phrase. Those who choose to work in Illinois’s public sector become members of a club whom the state apparatus will protect no matter what. Those who are not public workers are out of luck. Not only do ordinary Illinois citizens lack the equal protection under this law, but, because of it, their own financial security is being actively impaired, and the public welfare of Illinois is being gradually sacrificed to secure the well being of one special class in perpetuity.

As matters stand, Illinois’s pension-protection clause has become the yardstick against which any pension-reform legislation must be fearfully measured. The state courts are firm in their devotion to this provision, which benefits everyone in Illinois government, including its judges. Sensible, hard-won pension-reform legislation has been struck down while legality of this patently odious and in-egalitarian provision has gone unchallenged.

Illinois citizens must stand up and challenge the constitutionality of Illinois’s pension provision in the federal courts. A provision leading to such unfair and destructive outcomes is an affront to the larger purposes of government. It penalizes the bulk of Illinois’s population while extending extraordinary protections to public workers. It’s time for those penalized to ask: “What about me?”

Copyright Susan Barsy