“Safe Roads” Amendment Unsafe for Illinois Taxpayers

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Chicago – “Safe Roads Amendment” sounds so good. Who could possibly vote against it? However, the measure would be more aptly named, “Safe Revenue for Contractors and Unions” or “The Tax Increase Amendment,” stated Jim Tobin.
“Proponents of the amendment see this as a way to increase taxes to benefit their cronies. Former Illinois legislator and union crony, Jim Reilly openly states that this amendment will make it easier to raise taxes!”
“This amendment would also provide yet another constitutionally protected siphoning of taxpayer wealth for the benefit of special interests — the special interests that continually contribute funds to reelect the very legislators who seemingly can’t be trusted to spend tax dollars appropriately,” added the Taxpayers United of America president.
“Union bosses and contractors are drooling at the thought of a steady revenue stream protected by the Constitution. I can see driving across beautiful roads while the rest of the state is falling in ruin around us. Without an emergency release of this designation of taxes, funds could never be used where a greater need may exist.”
“A better solution would be to fire the lawmakers you don’t trust by voting them out of office.
The purpose of the Constitution is not to protect select groups of individuals, like the government employees and their pensions, but to protect the taxpayers from out-of-control government.”
“I strongly urge Illinois taxpayers to recognize this amendment for what it is: cronyism in its worst form, approved by the many to benefit a few, through additional tax increases, and packaged as a taxpayer benefit. On November 8, Vote “NO” on the proposed Tax Increase Amendment.”
“Fire about 80% of the incumbent lawmakers and hire people you trust to spend our money more wisely, lawmakers that will put seriously helpful amendments on the ballot,” urged Tobin.
“Illinois’ finances are among the worst in the country largely due to government-employee pensions. Where is the amendment that would protect taxpayers from this inevitable catastrophe? Where is the amendment that would limit the terms of the General Assembly, thereby limiting their power and indebtedness to special interests? Where is the amendment that prevents politically motivated district maps or gerrymandering?”
“Illinois has real financial problems and this amendment will not help, but instead will drive us further into financial ruin,” concluded Tobin.

Daily Herald | The pluses, minuses of educators serving on school boards

Taxpayers United of America’s President, Jim Tobin, was quoted by Daily Herald in an article about active or retired education employees using elected positions to benefit their industry.

Education industry experience abounds on the Gurnee Elementary District 56 school board.dhart
Of the seven elected positions, five seats are filled with members who are retired from school districts or employed in public education jobs. An athletic director, a retired superintendent, a substitute teacher, a retired school secretary and a teacher/administrator are on the District 56 board.
Board President James Blockinger said the community can benefit from educators in the elected positions — an opinion disputed by some taxpayer watchdogs.
Blockinger, whose career included serving as superintendent of Millburn Elementary District 24, said current or former education employees typically are open-minded and make research-based decisions.
He also said his advanced training as an administrator can lead to him posing questions to District 56 officials that may not be considered by those without his experience.
“I personally would want educators on my school board if I were not on it,” said Blockinger, who’s in the middle of a four-year term.
District 56 stood out as an extreme example in an examination of who has education industry ties on suburban school boards. The examination found:
• There are 67 board members in 44 suburban school districts who are teachers, school administrators or have worked in the education field, according to data culled from campaign information submitted to the Daily Herald in 2011 and 2013. Other school systems with a strong education industry presence include Lake Park High School District 108 in Roselle, where a teacher, retired educator and substitute instructor occupy three of seven board seats. Lombard Elementary District 44’s school board includes a former assistant principal, a substitute teacher and a school psychologist.
• Candidates in the April 7 election voluntarily identified themselves as current or retired public education employees, or noted family members in the education industry, in Daily Herald questionnaires. In 29 contested races, there are 45 candidates with those education ties, according to the information culled from the questionnaires.
• In the latest Illinois Association of School Boards survey, 87 of 1,333 members from across the state who responded said they held a public education job. Another 181 board members reported a spouse who is employed by a school district.
David From, state director of the Americans for Prosperity Illinois tax watchdog organization, said there is reason taxpayers should be concerned about public education industry employees on a school board.
With public elementary and high schools typically accounting for about two-thirds of suburban property tax bills, who’s making the decision is more significant than in other governments, From said.
“I think it does matter more, because the costs of education is the biggest driver in seemingly ever-increasing property taxes,” he explained. “This matters even more when our state has the second-highest property tax burden in the nation. The education unions encourage their members to run for these offices, driving up the cost of benefits and salaries in those districts. Those contracts are then used by the other districts as leverage and example to drive up costs in other districts. The unions have been very well-organized and effective in executing this model.”
Jim Tobin, president of Chicago-based Taxpayers United of America, said he believes school board members with education connections have a built-in bias and are less likely to make decisions with an entire community in mind.
“As a general rule, vote against anyone affiliated with the schools,” Tobin said.
However, spokesmen for the school board association and Illinois Federation of Teachers union dispute the idea that active or retired education employees use elected positions to benefit their industry.
James Russell, the statewide school board association spokesman, said there is no advantage to teachers if their peers or others with public education links hold elected posts in districts.
“I would say this: A school board member is elected to be on the management side of the negotiating team,” Russell said.
Illinois Federation of Teachers spokesman Kenzo Shibata said while there isn’t a formal push, the union may endorse candidates for school boards to ensure the voices of educators are heard. Teacher unions do not always endorse current or former members, he said, instead deciding based on local criteria.
District 56 teacher salaries contradict the idea that a school board with a heavy majority of current or retired public education employees means fatter union contracts, Shibata said. District 56 instructors’ base pay is $38,000 to $58,000 annually.
Statewide, the pay range for an elementary teacher with a bachelor’s degree on the low end was $29,906 and $87,352 at the top for school systems the size of District 56’s student enrollment of 2,212, according to the Illinois State Board of Education’s most recent 2013-14 salary study.
“Looking specifically at District 56 in Gurnee’s pay, you’ll see that teachers’ pay is modest in relation to comparable districts,” Shibata said. “It’s clear that the contract reflects good-faith compromise on both sides.”
Under state law, school board members can’t be employed by the district they represent or have a contract for services worth more than $1,000. They also can’t have a direct or indirect interest in any contract, work or business of the school district or in the sale of anything to the school district.
Meanwhile, it’s not necessarily easy to find out who has education employment connections on school boards.
Anyone interested in knowing must check county clerk offices or websites for the state-mandated statement of economic interest forms school board members and other government representatives are required by state law to complete. Willfully filing a false or incomplete statement could result in a maximum $1,000 fine and possibly up to one year in prison if convicted.
Elected officials must answer the following question on the statement of economic interest: “List the name of any unit of government which employed the person making the statement during the preceding calendar year, other than the unit or units of government in relation to which the person is required to file.”
Although family government employment connections are not specifically demanded in the form’s question, Elk Grove Elementary District 59 board member Brian Kiel noted his wife is a teacher there and a son has worked as temporary summer help.
Kiel, who is not seeking re-election, said his wife was a District 59 instructor for many years before he joined the school board. He said he was a longtime volunteer for the District 59 Education Foundation before residents suggested her run for the school board.
He said he’s avoided potential conflicts of interest by abstaining from voting on anything that would affect his wife’s income, such as contracts, and he does not participate in labor negotiations.
“My integrity is very important to me,” Kiel said. “I donate my time to the district as a community member because I believe our future is dependent on preparing all of our students to be successful for life.”
State law allows board members to represent a district where a spouse is employed. However, the Illinois Council of School Attorneys wrote in a June 2014 report that a violation of state law could occur if a board member actively promotes the spouse’s financial interests, and is advised to seek legal counsel if voting on hiring or other employment motions.
The Americans for Prosperity’s From contends legislation is needed that would prohibit anyone from holding a school board post if a spouse is employed at the same district.
He said a board member’s effectiveness could be watered down by abstaining from votes and that any decision might be construed as benefiting a spouse.
Tobin said he’d approve of a school board member whose spouse works at the same district under one condition.
“If he votes to cut the taxes, it won’t be a conflict at all,” Tobin said.

Chicago Tribune | Watchdog group puts spotlight on six-figure pensions in Lake County

Jim Tobin and Jared Labell of Taxpayers United of America were featured by the Chicago Tribune discussing the public pensions of Lake County and Waukegan retirees.

Nearly 900 retirees from Lake County government, Lake County public schools and the College of Lake County collect six-figure annual pensions — including 14 whose pensions pay out more than $200,000 per year, according to a Chicago-based watchdog group.ctribart
“These people paid very little into their own pension funds to pay for the cost of their lavish, gold-plated pensions,” Taxpayers United of America president Jim Tobin said at a Chicago news conference last week. “That’s the key problem here. They’re just not paying enough into it. The pensions are ridiculous — that’s one of the problems. But the second problem is that they’re just not paying enough out of their own pockets.”
Last week, the group released data that included local retirees’ names, their annual pension amounts, their retirement ages, how much they paid into their pensions and their projected lifetime payouts. The data comes amid the ongoing debate over how to handle the state’s public pension system, which is estimated to be underfunded by nearly $105 billion.
Combined, there are 893 retirees from those groups earning pensions in excess of $100,000 annually, including 12 Lake County public schools retirees and two College of Lake County retirees whose annual pensions pay out more than $200,000 per year, according to the TUA data. Meanwhile, 743 Lake County public schools retirees, 113 College of Lake County retirees and 23 Lake County government retirees have annual pensions between $100,000 and $200,000, the group’s data showed.
No Waukegan municipal government retirees collect annual pensions over $100,000, according to the group’s data. TUA claims that statewide more than 11,000 public retirees are earning six-figure pensions.
According to TUA data, one retired educator from Lincolnshire-Prairie View District 103 paid $326,507 into the state’s retirement fund, retired at age 55 and began collecting an annual pension of $258,163. The TUA claims the lifetime payout for that pension, assuming a life expectancy of 85, could amount to more than $11.1 million. This would mean that the employee’s total contribution would represent 2.9 percent of the projected payout.
A list of the top 44 Waukegan pensions paid through the Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund — including those for Waukegan Park District employees but not police or fire personnel — found annual payouts that include $73,715 for a former city engineer who retired at age 57 and contributed $84,659 into municipal retirement funds.
One of the names on the list of Waukegan municipal government’s top pensioners was Ray Vukovich, who served as the city’s director of governmental services from 2001 to 2010 and retired at age 51. The TUA listed his annual pension at $70,171 after paying a total of $54,684 toward retirement funds.
Vukovich said he was not against the scrutiny, pointing out that he served in a position that was in the public arena and was paid under a budget that was approved as part of an open process. But he added that some of the individuals are facing criticism for participating in a system that was presented to them as a benefit of employment.
“It’s not fair from the standpoint that they followed the rules that were in place,” Vukovich said. “They paid into the system (and) when they were ready for retirement, they filed their paperwork and they’re receiving what the system set up for them. These are people who planned their lives around what they’d receive.
“Is the system perfect? No. Does it need fixing? Yes,” Vukovich said. “If I got a call from Springfield saying, ‘Would you volunteer to serve on a committee to discuss pension reform?’ I’d gladly do it. But this is a problem that didn’t get created in the last six months. It’s been 30 or 40 years in the making.”
The TUA has gone public with lists of retiree pensions in communities from Champaign to Dixon in recent months, and the group feels it’s an effective approach to name names, TUA operations director Jared Labell said..
“The idea isn’t to demonize teachers and these individual government employees, but to look at these individual payments and make them seem more real,” Labell said. “If you tell somebody that there are 11,000 retirees making six-figures, their eyes kind of glaze over. But when you see the actual numbers and say, ‘I know that guy or that woman,’ it (puts) a face to the growing problem in the state.”
But Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund Executive Director Louis W. Kosiba said he feels Taxpayers United of America has been engaging in “inflammatory (and) sensational” tactics to cast the entire idea of public pensions in a negative light by releasing lists of retirees drawing six-figure annual payouts.
“They certainly have a right to opine about the compensation (and) pensions of public employees,” Kosiba said, adding when you cherry-pick the high numbers, it looks terrible and “unsustainable.” You need to look at a more holistic approach.
Using the most recent audited, actuarial data from December 2013, Kosiba said the IMRF covers the pensions of 106,997 retirees, with the average annual benefit coming in at $13,758. He added that more than 5,300 IMRF members field less than $100 per month.
Information provided by the IMRF states that the organization is 97 percent funded with more than $34 billion in assets. Kosiba said that for every dollar paid to a fund retiree, 63 cents came from investment income, 25 cents from employers and 12 cents came from employee contributions.
“Yes, there are highly-compensated people in government, and the pensions are going to be a function of their longevity — the longer you work, the higher your pension is going to be. IMRF covers medical doctors, IMRF covers attorneys,” he said, adding that “taxpayers shouldn’t get the idea that they’re funding the entire pension.”
Kosiba also countered the notion that the group was not trying to “demonize” retirees, saying, “If they’re not trying to demonize anybody, they wouldn’t be putting these names out there.”
“At the end of the day, people in the public sector know that their (compensation) is out there,” Kosiba said, “but no one talks about pensions in the private sector. I feel everyone has a right to know how their dollars are spent by corporations, and some of them are monopolies. So it’s a little bit unfair.”
Labell and Tobin used the term “unsustainable” to describe Illinois’ pension system.
In Waukegan, the city’s comprehensive financial report for the 2013-14 fiscal year shows that the public contribution to municipal, police and fire pensions totaled more than $11.3 million. Mayor Wayne Motley responded by saying “it is an issue” that must be addressed.
“We can’t do a thing about it until the Legislature acts,” Motley said. “It’s broken — there’s no question about it, but I can’t fix it. It has to be fixed by the state Legislature.”
Motley — who noted that he draws a public pension himself, having retired from the Waukegan Police Department at age 51 in 2001 — added that “I wish I knew the answer to fixing it, because I would be on the Oprah Winfrey Show. But I don’t know.”
The TUA reiterated past recommendations to put newly-hired public employees into private 401(k) savings accounts, increase the percentage of salary contributed by current employees to the public-pension system, and increase the retirement age for full benefits, among other reforms. During last month’s budget address, Gov. Bruce Rauner also touted 401(k) options, along with other approaches that would include caps on high-salaried pensions and a raise in retirement age for benefits earned after July 2015.
“If they implement these recommendations, (current) pensions can be paid out,” Tobin said. “We’ve got to get the new people into 401(k) s, or there’s not going to be any way to save this thing.”