While serious, data-intensive analysis beyond the state’s borders continues to place Illinois on one dubious list of underachievement after another, Gov. Pat Quinn has spent his time overseeing the creation and rollout of a cartoon character symbolic of the most pressing problem of the day – unfunded pension obligations.
By visiting the oddly named site, ThisIsMyIllinois.com, concerned citizens can be introduced to “Squeezy, the Pension Python,” who is orange when red seems to be the color of the hour. Squeezy turns up in an explanatory video that traces the history of pensions and suggests our current state of affairs is to be blamed on the Roman Empire. “Don’t look at me,” Quinn’s video seems to imply. “They started it!”
The simplistic web site is presented as a Pension Reform 101 resource, featuring a smiling little boy. He’s positively glowing because, as the tagline advises, “Now I get it and it can’t wait.”
The “it” is a statement of the obvious: the Illinois economy is suffocating under the weight of unfunded pension obligations, widely reported to be a staggering $95 billion-plus, and has no choice but to overhaul its system, union entrenchment notwithstanding. (The Illinois Policy Institute last summer released figures that put the “it” much higher, at $203 billion and counting in acknowledging tougher accounting standards to come).
Against this backdrop, there is little sign of sober resolve to get to work in the current lame-duck session in Springfield and make legislators take their medicine. On Nov. 26, the Chicago Tribune matter-of-factly reported, “it remains uncertain whether (lame duck) legislators will provide the votes to pass the most controversial measures … (even as) the fiscal crisis remains not only unabated, but enhanced (by the pension time bomb).”
Indeed, the cast of characters seems perfectly willing, the Tribune goes on to report, to chase casino expansion deals, and bills to allow drivers’ licenses for illegal immigrants and legalized same-sex marriage.
Inaction on pension reform costs the state an estimated $18 million a day, but, remarkably, doesn’t deter stewards of the Illinois economy from permitting Springfield to appear, from a distance, like the colorful set of the 1990s film, Toys, with Robin Williams as the whimsical Gov. Quinn. It is a world where Squeezy the Pension Python vies to hold his ground against Chips the Casino Clown and Amnestasia the Licensing Llama.
This would all be so very hilarious if reality was not so harsh and people didn’t actually inhabit the state of Illinois. They do, and many are tired of being trivialized by pundits and comedians. Yet who can blame outsiders from taking their shots with so much material at hand, such as the latest Forbes ranking of 11 “death spiral” states to be avoided by investors (Illinois qualifies), or the “worst-run states” based on an annual survey by 24/7 Wall St.
California is the worst-run at No. 50, the survey concludes, but lapping at its heels at No. 48 (after Rhode Island) is none other than the Land of Lincoln. Sorry, Abe (and Daniel Day-Lewis). This is not based on fleeting variables such as pothole patching. 24/7 Wall St. meticulously reviews (using 2010 data) each state’s debt, revenue, expenditures and deficits, along with taxes, exports, GDP growth, poverty, income, unemployment, high school graduation, violent crime and foreclosure rates.
Illinois easily qualified to join these lowly ranks with the second-largest budget deficit (40.2%), 10th-highest unemployment rate (9.8%) and lowest percentage of pension liability funding (45%).
Even if you are willing to put up with Quinn’s sophomoric python, there are other more alarming aspects of ThisIsMyIllinois.com against the backdrop of these foreboding surveys.
For instance, the site links to the Khan Academy online university, where Harvard and MIT intellectual Salman Khan holds forth on unfunded pension obligations “using Illinois as an example”. (Guess he’s tired of picking on Greece). And it depicts that toothy youngster gushing the words, “Thanks in advance … for fixing the future of my Illinois.”
If Squeezy could talk he might say, “Our problem is so big and complex, we need a guy with three degrees from MIT and a Harvard MBA to explain it, but don’t worry kids, we’ve got it under control.”
You don’t have to be an Ivy Leaguer to suspect how the story really ends. Squeezy is devoured by Sleazy the Pension Piranha, but no one takes heed. Everyone is too busy playing Blackjack, taking drivers’ tests and buying wedding gifts.