Pension remarks haunt Biss bid for governor

Capitol Connection

ILLINOIS — Newly resurfaced video reveals State Senator Daniel Biss openly discussing political calculations around his controversial and ultimately unconstitutional effort to reduce pension benefits, casting his recent explanations in a different light. 

“I don’t mean to sound so crass, but everybody in the General Assembly has lots of teachers in their district,” Biss told the American Constitution Society for Law and Policy, a group that convened at Chicago’s John Marshall School of Law in April of 2014. 

Biss admitted his pension cuts would be painful for teachers before explaining to the audience how he lobbied his legislative colleagues to overlook that pain and vote for it anyway.

“Well, we all [represent a lot of teachers], they’re distributed everywhere,” Biss said, adding, “that makes the politics of the teacher system very different to the other systems.” His rationale, his campaign confirmed, was that the threat of political retribution from teachers was often loud but overstated, because according to his logic, teachers did not pose a disproportionate threat to any one state lawmaker more than another. 

The state employee pension system is completely separate from the teachers retirement systems, and it’s members live mostly around Chicago and Springfield. Biss had his sights set on that pension system too, explaining to the room of lawyers and law students that “as a matter of politics, I can get away with really offending state employees because I don’t represent that many of them.” 

During the 2014 panel discussion, Biss repeated an argument that the state could actually “enhance” pension benefits if lawmakers could cut pensions to better ensure payments would be made. He admitted candidly that it was “kind of a slimy thing to say.”

Biss’ argument won over enough lawmakers to pass the bill out of the statehouse, but it did not convince the state Supreme Court. The justices ruled the bill unconstitutional, in a victory for public sector unions. 

The Illinois State Constitution says in Article 13, Section 5, that 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.”

At the pension panel discussion, Biss said “no constitutional protection is absolute” and that “emergency situations call for emergency interpretations” of the state constitution.

During his run for governor, Biss says he now believes that pensions are a promise. He has repeatedly apologized for his attempt to reduce pension benefits, saying he is better for the experience. He says he fell for a “false choice” and got swept away by what he called “obsessive hysteria” in Springfield. 

According to his panel discussion in 2014, some of that hysteria may have come from financial experts who studied the state’s pension crisis, widely considered one of the worst in the nation. Biss said, “The actuaries look at us and say, ‘Dude, you’re not possibly going to make the payments you have to make. These systems are going to go bust at some point.’”

The pension crisis was so all-encompassing for state politics, both of Biss’ primary rivals also got involved, although at different times and in different ways. 

In 2011, J.B. Pritzker gave $20,000 to a political action committee called “We Mean Business,” a group solely dedicated to pressuring lawmakers to reform public pensions in Illinois. 

Biss campaign spokesman Tom Elliott says that donation is proof Pritzker is a hypocrite who supported pension reform before he opposed it. Elliott wrote in a statement, “Unlike Mr. Pritzker, Daniel has been open about his record, said that the solution he offered was a mistake and that we cannot accept false choices in the future.”

Does Pritzker regret that donation? 

“At the time that I funded it, I was asked by Democrats to do it,” Pritzker said in an interview with WCIA on Wednesday. “[It was] two years before Daniel Biss introduced his bill and honestly what I want to do is solve the pension problem by paying the pensions.”

Pritzker also argues his one-time donation pales in comparison to Biss’ persistent effort which spanned several years. 

“His rhetoric today doesn’t match his record,” Pritzker said. “We all know now that Daniel Biss is the one who introduced the bill to take away 450,000 people’s pensions across the state of Illinois, including teachers and nurses. Daniel Biss is the guy who pushed that bill all the way to conclusion. That’s the bill that was found unconstitutional. It’s wrong to be against paying teachers and nurses and state workers what they’re due.”

Biss’ other primary opponent Chris Kennedy has aimed most of his fire at Pritzker in his run for governor, but in this case suggests Biss’ altered course on pension policy should cast doubt on the promises he makes in this campaign. 

“[Biss] did work for Mike Madigan and he did try to take away the very pensions he’s pretending he’d protect today,” Kennedy said. “You just don’t know what you’re gonna get with Dan. I mean, I like Daniel, he’s really great, but you don’t know what you’re gonna get.”

A separate video from 2014 also sheds light on Kennedy’s view of the intractable pension fight and it’s impact on people who earned them. 

Kennedy said “we can’t afford to allow” a portion of the Biss pension bill that he said would “negatively affect” faculty at the University of Illinois. Kennedy chaired the Board of Trustees at the time, and posted a video to YouTube with a message crafted to ease concerns among tenured faculty who had grown worried they would see their pension benefits significantly downgraded.

An error in the legislation would have forced 4,000 university faculty into a difficult corner: either abruptly retire or see their monthly pension benefits slashed by up to 30 percent. As board chairman, Kennedy apologized to faculty for allowing it to reach that point, then promised to engage with the legislature and resolve the issue. The error was corrected soon after, preventing the threat of what he called a “brain drain” — a mass exodus of tenured professors whose exits would have cost the university federal grant dollars too. 

At the start of that video message, Kennedy also said that “pension reform was needed.”

Does that mean Kennedy supported the Biss pension bill before he opposed it?

“No way,” the campaign responded. In the same video, Kennedy says “The bill had lots of parts, not all of which were fully vetted.”

In response to our inquiry, Kennedy’s campaign produced emails he sent to colleagues in 2014 where he analyzed the pension changes as destructive to the working poor, an affront to a safety net that people had earned during their careers, and he criticized the state legislature for historically failing to pay the pension obligation, a move he said effectively stripped public schools of state funding and resulted in higher property taxes.

The three Democrats hold their final debate before the March 20th primary contest on Wednesday, March 14 at WTTW in Chicago. 

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