Why not challenge the constitutionality of Illinois’s pension-protection clause?

Illinois citizens are expected to sit tight as the cost of meeting state and local pension obligations brings their government ever nearer to bankruptcy.  Everyday, we hear of a new head-ache: how our property-taxes are likely to begin sky-rocketing, or how short-term borrowing to pay pensions will soon destroy Chicago’s bond rating, and how people are leaving the state to avoid being stuck with the costs when the looming disaster of all-out bankruptcy finally arrives.  Yet no matter how painful to the citizenry, our government must rake together the money for public-pension obligations that are burgeoning.

All because a section of the Illinois constitution stipulates that, no matter what, one class of Illinois citizens can count on protections that no others can: the benefits of belonging to a state pension system must not be diminished or impaired.  In the service of this constitutional provision, the state may be driven into bankruptcy and the rest of the population held forever accountable for promises that by-gone politicians irresponsibly made.  The needs of ordinary citizens are being choked off so that those of lawmakers and public workers may be fulfilled.

The power of the legislature to pass laws conferring benefits on themselves and other public workers is difficult to limit.  The pension ‘system’ in Illinois is an irrational bricolage of myriad laws passed over the decades.  The Chicago Tribune has described it as a “convoluted mess of provisions riddled with giveaways, funding flaws, excessive borrowing, and pension holidays.”  The pension code is organic in the sense that’s easy to add to, but any benefit, once added, is virtually impossible to take away.

Consequently, the state’s pension system is an unholy mix of the good, the bad, and the ugly.  It pays pensions to convicted felons like Jon Burge and to brazen scoundrels who had the luck to head up our towns and public universities.  It pays millions of dollars in benefits to cagey officials who correctly perceived the advantages of ‘double-dipping.’  The fact that citizens are powerless to curb the excesses of the pension system feeds hostility to it, to the detriment of many decent and deserving public employees.

Why not take a page from the four Virginians who have mounted a potentially game-changing challenge to the Affordable Care Act by questioning the meaning of just one of its phrases?  Should the public welfare of Illinois be sacrificed to secure the well-being of one special class in perpetuity?  In fact, the pension provision defines a special class of citizens in terms of their distinctive relationship to the state and then confers unassailable privileges on them.  How can this be constitutional?

 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.

As matters stand, the pension provision has become the yardstick against which any pension-reform legislation must be fearfully measured.  Sensible legislation has been struck down while legality of this patently odious and inegalitarian provision has gone challenged.  Illinois citizens should stand up and challenge the constitutionality of the pension provision itself.  A requirement that leads to such unfair and destructive outcomes is an affront to the larger purpose of government.  Does it really trump every other principle of constitutional law?

Given the urgency of Illinois’s fiscal condition, this question should be engaging the state’s best legal minds.

Susan Barsy, “The Pension Stand-Off in Illinois”

Library of Congress Unveils Rare Civil War-Era Views

Fort Moultrie, No. 9 (Robin Stanford Collection, the Library of Congress)
The Library of Congress has acquired hundreds of rare stereographic views from Robin G. Stanford, a Houston woman whose collection focuses on the Civil War era and the South during and after the period it practiced slavery. Continue reading

An early aerial view of the University of Chicago

Aerial panoramic view of the Quads taken from west of Ellis Avenue.
George R Lawrence was a pioneer whose specialty was panoramic aerial photography.  A native of northern Illinois, he invented the means to take high-quality “bird’s eye” views using a camera hoisted aloft with balloons or kites.  His most famous photographs are of a ruined San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake, but he also photographed Chicago, its waterfront and factories, and various towns nearby. Continue reading

Seattle’s Arboretum

 The undulating path through the center of the Arboretum blooms with cherry blossoms, crabapples, and magnolias in March.
While in Seattle, my husband and I visited the arboretum, which is easy to get to by cab from downtown.  At this time of year, it’s the place to visit—far better than any market or museum. Continue reading

Rahm’s Chicago: A Nice Place to Visit

Chicago: The Drive at night, © 2014 Susan Barsy
Heading south on the Drive after being away, I feel a surge of pride—such a beautiful city!  I pull out my camera and begin taking pictures of the familiar buildings—the Hancock, the Drake, the Palmolive with its beacon on—the Gold Coast all dressed up for the night.  The beauty of Chicago, the myriad things that are right about it, evoke pleasure and pride.  The face of Chicago has only grown more beautiful with time.

The city’s historical strengths have gotten a lot of primping, beginning with Mayor Richard M. Daley, who began pouring money into its parks, intent on creating “The Garden in the City.”  Even the commercial boulevards—ugly thoroughfares stretching out endlessly—were given expensive medians and beautified with thousands upon thousands of trees and ornamental plantings.  Daley promoted the idea of Millennium Park and put together the public-private financing that converted a woe-begone strip of old railroad yards into an elegant yet popular park that became an immediate hit worldwide.  Daley also worked to attract residential developers to the Loop and to expand student communities downtown in the hopes of making Chicago a more 24-hour city.  He pioneered the use of TIFs—a now suspect slush fund whose initials stand for “Tax Increment Financing”—to create redevelopment zones in neighborhoods citywide.  Famously, Daley peremptorily bulldozed the old lakeside airstrip called Miegs Field, which has since become a nature preserve.

Daley operated in boom times, mainly, and overspent cleverly, without taxpayers much noticing, or caring.  But, more important, his ‘image agenda’ was carefully balanced with initiatives to improve neighborhood life.  Daley was the city’s first ‘color-blind’ mayor: at least he realized that, to be reelected, he had to confer some benefits on all Chicagoans regardless of color, condition, or political allegiance.  Pot-holes were fixed in independent wards.  He built new playgrounds and libraries in every Chicago neighborhood.  Even his quixotic and questionable dream of bringing the Olympics here was bound up in the promise of a flood of redevelopment for the South Side.  Daley could have done more and spent less, but his approach to his job was founded on a recognition that his fate depended on the favor of ordinary, and ordinarily powerless, Chicagoans.  He stayed focused on making the city more livable, on improving Chicago’s quality of life.

The challenge Daley struggled with, Mayor Emanuel shirks.  Despite all the hoopla, Rahm lacks a solid economic vision for reviving the powerhouse that Chicago was.  His signature projects won’t confer benefits that are broad and equal.  Rahm’s Chicago is a narcissistic place: it’s all about the broad gesture, it’s all about tourism, it’s all about what outsiders think.  Whereas tourism grows best where there’s authentic indigenous vitality, the mayor seems to think that tourism and leisure alone will sustain Chicago’s economy—if only we can build enough glitzy attractions to paper over the city’s festering woes.

Hence the crowd-pleasing Divvy bikes, the new Maggie Daley Park—a $55-million-dollar atrocity nobody needs—, the new De Paul stadium (which will benefit De Paul University while costing taxpayers millions), the Lucas Museum of Narrative Arts—a colossal vanity project that Lucas should build without public favors on private grounds.  Rather than having a ‘multiplier effect,’ the money Chicagoans spend on Divvy bikes flows out of the city to a New York firm.

Emanuel’s myopic obsession with making Chicago a nice place to visit offends every Chicagoan who longs to see the city safer, more prosperous, and richer in opportunity.  Chicago’s mayor should be working the levers to enhance the lives of Chicagoans.  Make their neighborhoods safer, their daily lives healthier; unshutter their schools, give their kids a path to the future, and stop Chicago’s population decline.  Were Emanuel to do that, he really might have the chops to be president one day.  As it is, Rahm’s Chicago, though prettier than ever, is starving for the love and care it deserves.

The Democratic Party of my dreams

I’m still waiting for a breakout Democrat to cast the party along new lines. I’m tired of the old Democratic party, which still plays identity politics, makes bad bargains with public resources, and is generally very loose with money. I’m tired of big government that’s inefficient and behind the times.  I want a small powerful government that does things well.

I’m waiting for a new Democratic party to come along, that’s resolutely focused not on unions but on all who work.  Most workers are not, and may never be, organized.  For their sake, the party needs to demand corporate responsibility and corporate investment in our citizens and our native economy.  I’m waiting for a new party that cares about industry and sustainability, that’s ardent and uncompromising about making high-quality, next-generation goods here in the States, and that believes in the collective capacities of the citizenry to take the US economy higher.

I’m waiting for a party that’s proud of universal health coverage, that insists on quality public education, and favors everything local and green.  I want a party that’s candid about globalism’s dark side.  That wants to curtail immigration sharply for a while, in order to take into account all who are here, strengthen our civic fabric, and restore American citizenship’s prestige.

I’m waiting for Democrats who will demand peace: who will foreswear the siren song, the illusory notion that we can ever really “protect American interests abroad.”  I’m waiting for a party that will respect the sovereignty of other nations and that’s clear-eyed enough to refrain from unending militarism abroad.

I’m waiting, and I’m sure that a large population waits with me.


Aerial view of Minneapolis on a late winter day.
I hope you can forgive me for not publishing any text with this photograph when I posted it this morning.  I find it difficult to blog when I’m traveling.  And sometimes it’s more difficult than I expect to explain a photograph’s meaning or appeal.  This one, with its complex array of shades and shapes, is beautiful and engrossing on its own terms.  It’s an almost abstract aesthetic pleasure, contemplating the swirl of low roofs around the crisp black and blue skyscrapers, the scatter of boxy towers each with its own quirks and tonalities.  I enjoy the fact that many of the lower buildings, like the massive red sandstone church in the lower left corner, or what I think must be the convention center at center right, are nearly as distinct and impressive as the taller towers.  The crispness comes from the trees being all bare and dry.  There is a dynamism and beauty here that I don’t associate with Minneapolis at all.

Yet every time I come here, I find something else that I like, whether it’s the Normandy Best Western, the Global Market, the Marquette Hotel, or Minnehaha Falls.  My sister and her family are here, and more recently my parents: I’ve learned to see the city through their eyes.  And sometimes I’ve taken some good photographs, whether of the Como Park Conservatory or the bookstore Wild Rumpus.


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