Posted Online: Nov. 25, 2012, 6:00 am

Editorial: Squeezy the Pension Python? Is that the best we can do?

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The Dispatch and The Rock Island Argus

Squeezy the Pension Python? Really, Gov. Pat Quinn?

How wise is it to pin your hopes for public support for fixing the state's broken pension system on a symbol that plays so readily into Illinois' reputation as a den of vipers slinking around with only one thought in mind: personal enrichment through reelection? That, however, is what the Chicago Democrat did amid much fanfare a week ago in unveiling a social media-based campaign featuring an image of a snake that looks suspiciously like a character from the animated film "Robin Hood." (Let's hope the litigation-happy Disney Co. isn't paying attention).

We do give the governor points for trying to ramp up support for the tough choices ahead via his website, however dumbed-down its presentation.

The governor clearly is trying to plug into a younger generation via a video which looks a lot like the ones we were forced to watch in school classrooms decades ago. Upcoming electronic town hall meetings on the pension mess also are planned, the website tells us.

But really, governor, just who is it you are you trying to convince that Illinois needs a pension overhaul? After the Nov. 6 election, some cheerleaders for reform, including the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago, all but declared defeat in the battle to plug the state's $96 billion -- and growing -- pension hole. They said that by returning so many incumbents to the General Assembly, voters clearly have no appetite for hard choices. A Civic Club leader went so far as to call the problem "unfixable."

We say nonsense to both. Perhaps voters would have chosen other leaders to fix the system had they been confronted with candidates who offered solid, workable plans for doing so. The alternatives we heard, for example, frequently were vague, unfair, impractical, non-existent, or too little to do much good. Not surprisingly, for voters, simply saying, "Vote for me because I'm not the guy who caused it," wasn't enough.

We believe the public gets it. We just don't know if lawmakers do.
The governor does. And good for him. But he's far from blameless here. Nowhere in this new, "Thanks in Advance" campaign does he offer details of his own plans for fixing the mess.

The PR campaign is vintage Pat Quinn, down to his calling on Illinoisans to talk about the issue over their Thanksgiving turkey. It was long on symbols and short on ideas. That's been one of the biggest problems with resolving the pension mess from the very beginning.

So has intransigence. For example, Chicago Democratic leaders, including Gov. Quinn and House Speaker Michael Madigan, continue to insist that any pension reform measure must force downstate schools to begin picking up their own pension costs. Downstate lawmakers are wisely leery of such a "solution." They know what will happen to local property taxes -- or to classroom quality -- if the huge teacher pension burden is thrust in their laps. Promises of a phased-in plan that will make the switch painless are far from reassuring.

Neither is the scuttlebutt that a massive pension reform plan will be coming down the pike in January, just before the new members of the General Assembly take office. (Of the 177 lawmakers, 35 either lost election or chose not to run. That makes them fearless, the theory goes.) We fear that, much like the 67 percent hike in the state income tax jammed through a lame-duck General Assembly, the public will have little knowledge, and even less input, into what reform will contain. The governor's feel-good campaign doesn't do anything to prevent that.

Many lawmakers, including local representatives, have repeatedly said everyone must be at the table to come up with a solution to the problem. One of the players should be the taxpayers, who will be called on to pay for it all.

They need more than cartoon characters, stickers, Facebook "likes" and Tweets. They need concrete solutions delivered in the bold light of day.

Lawmakers go back to Springfield this week. That gives leaders and the governor plenty of time to put together a plan and share it with voters BEFORE that lame-duck January vote.