Rep. Biss Holds Town Hall Meeting on Pensions

by , posted on Wednesday, May 2nd, 2012 at 7:59 am

State Rep. Daniel Biss had the courage to hold a town hall meeting to discuss “pension reform” in Glenview on April 30th. I estimate that 200-225 people attended the overcrowded room that was set up to accommodate 75 people.

The standing room only crowd was a mirror image of other pension discussions happening around the state. The general mood of the cramped, “slightly too warm for comfort” room was polite and respectful. Biss set the tone by taking questions and respecting diverse opinions while facilitating the conversation artfully.

I attended the event because I felt that if Representative Biss had the courage to hold a controversial town hall meeting that he might also have the courage to lead a fight to actually fund pensions and uphold the state’s end of the deal.

There seemed to be a general understanding (and acceptance) that Mike Madigan would ultimately write a bill and drop it in for a late-night vote that everyone would support. One woman asked Biss if he would vote “yes” if something like SB 7 came down in the middle of the night. He dodged by saying, “I won’t vote for something I don’t understand.”

When I asked if Biss would support eliminating tax loopholes or a graduated tax as a funding mechanism for the Teachers Retirement System (TRS), he suggested that we might be able to do something like that in 2015. Like all lawmakers who talk to a progressive, informed voter, Biss said that he supports a constitutional amendment to get a progressive tax structure. Any lawmaker will tell you the same thing if you ask him or her, “why are we not taxing the rich like most of the other states do?” While lawmakers placate in-district voters with supportive language, for some reason, this conversation must never come up in Springfield during sessions that are dominated by discussions about budget shortfalls.

During his answer to this question Biss eluded to the “Springfield group think,” also known as “Madigan think,” that there would only be discussions of cuts in 2012 because we had already raised taxes in 2011.

So, the evening went on in the same polite, respectful, non-controversial manner that it opened with and, by 9:30 we were back on the road. Maybe Video News Service Producer, Mike Barr, summarized the meeting best when he said, “Everybody seemed happy. Let me politely stick this knife in your back. Is that OK? Good. Everybody keep smiling now.” Then it hit me.

Teachers are used to being polite and teaching children to be respectful and use “inside voices.” Unfortunately, this is a fight that demands controversy, strategy, and some “outside voices” of agitation.

I came home and read e-mails from the agitators, the fighters, also known as “The Pension Stalwarts,” a grassroots organizations of teachers that effectively stopped this assault when it was in the form of SB 512. One “stalwart” forwarded an e-mail from IEA President, Cinda Klickna. The e-mail acknowledged that this was, “the fight of our lives” and e-mail recipients should know that IEA was pursuing a legal strategy to stop Quinn’s proposal.


A legal strategy is necessary and smart, but teachers’ labor leaders need to strengthen their negotiating position by pushing lawmakers with in-district meetings and public events. Negotiating within the existing framework of “pension reform” is a guaranteed loss. Instead, labor leaders need to negotiate from a position of “pension funding.” The call for a graduated income tax is a good way to generate necessary revenue, but it is politically unlikely and complicated to pull off. Labor would be much better positioned to seek necessary revenue through a “Speculation Sales Tax” (SST), taxing the trades at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange and the Chicago Board Options Exchange. The SST is on each contract (essentially the buying and selling of derivatives), not each trade, and would generate an estimated $6 billion in revenue.

Now I get to use this blog to tell teachers and Representative Biss what I really think in my polite and respectful way.

Dear teachers and educators of all levels,

Every teacher knows that words are powerful. Telling a child that he or she is “stupid,” “dumb,” or “worthless” can leave lasting mental and emotional scars. The words become a self-fulfilling prophecy until they are replaced with words of empowerment and encouragement. Words like, “great job,” “you can do it,” “you can do anything” can change a child’s outlook and self-confidence forever. As educators, you use these words all of the time, and the world thanks you for repeatedly using these “word gifts.”

Brothers and sisters in education, you need to know that a coordinated attack that uses repetition and negative words is being used against you. The words are designed to make you stop fighting and stop questioning “the new reality.” Words like, “pension reform is needed” are designed to make you feel like you are the problem. Words like, “sure it is not fair, but we have to do something” are designed to make you look beyond the fairness issue and move towards acceptance. Words like, “it is a done deal” or, “there is nothing you can do to stop it” are designed to make you stop fighting all together.

These messages are repeated and work as a brainwashing method. Repetition through talking heads like Ty Fahner (Chicago Civic Committee), repetition through the Chicago Tribune, repetition through the Daily Herald, repetition through Governor Quinn, repetition through members of the Illinois General Assembly. And, even repetition through Dick Ingram, the Executive Director of your own retirement system.

Fortunately for me, my first teacher was my mother on the mission field in West Africa. In addition to teaching math and English, she did a great job re-enforcing the idea that her four boys “could be anything we wanted to be,” and, “that there were no mountains too high.”

As we approach decades of Springfield’s inaction, incompetence and the biggest threat to public employees that the state of Illinois has seen in a long time, I feel good that we can climb this mountain. I hear not the repetitious words of failure. Instead I am taken back to Wisconsin and the stories of teachers calling in sick to occupy the capital.

Fresh in my mind are the images of that gym teacher crawling through the bathroom window to retake the Capital after it was closed for cleaning. My ears are still ringing with the sounds of heels and work boots stomping on the marble floors to the powerful, unified voices of America chanting, “WHO’S HOUSE?” “OUR HOUSE!”

I remain optimistic that 2012 is the year of justice in Illinois – the year of unity – the year that the voices of hard working Illinois citizens silence and defeat “Madigan think.” We can do it!

These are my words for those who want to keep fighting from the outside. Now…

Brother Biss,

We first met when we were both fighting uphill political battles. Your path took you to the halls of power in Springfield and you need to be there. My path has made me one of the voices of dissent and agitation on the outside. I need to be here.

Having referenced my mother, it is only appropriate to recall words of wisdom from my father. He once said, “leadership is doing the right thing at the right time, even when it is not popular.”

Right now, Illinois needs leaders, not “tow the liners.” Leaders have the courage to challenge broken ideologies and broken systems. We have a broken political system that is begging for new leadership.

You have proven that you can get elected. You have proven that you have leadership potential. You have proven that you are smart; smart enough to do “pension math.” I think you are smart enough to figure out how to navigate the broken system and build a team that can change things.

Specifically, we need a leader to enter a pension funding bill.

Smart, ambitious leaders have the potential to be speaker, or governor. People will follow a leader, but they will not follow a capitulator.

My words to brother Biss and other members of the Illinois General Assembly are a plea to look beyond politics of the day and provide the kind of leadership that will strengthen our public education system and create a better future for our children.


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