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Critics of Chicago teachers' pensions referendum call it 'filler'

Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn welcomes kids back on the first day of school in Chicago in 2011. Quinn wants to shift the state’s contribution to school teacher pensions to the local school districts that employ them. (AP Photo/M. Spencer Green, File)

This election, Chicago voters get to weigh in on how they think public school teachers should have their pensions funded. But critics of the referendum say it shouldn’t even be on the ballot.

The non-binding referendum basically asks voters who should pay for Chicago teachers’ pensions: the city or the state?

A popular talking point among Chicago aldermen is that city taxpayers get charged twice. Once for the city’s teachers’ pensions and once more for teachers’ pensions statewide.

This system has been going on for decades.

"Why do my taxpayers continually have to pay for other municipalities’ pensions?" asked Ald. Joe Moreno (1), who said it’s time to have a serious conversation about the issue.

Comparing Chicago’s teachers’ pensions to the state’s is a little like apples to oranges because the state fund is much larger, but, in short what Chicagoans give to the state pension fund is more than what comes back from downstaters.

"Chicago has been on its own because that’s the way they wanted it," said Dave Urbanek, a spokesman for the Illinois Teachers Retirement System.

He said Chicago opted out of the state retirement fund in 1939. And if the city wanted in now, where the entire state were to all of a sudden pick up the tab for all Illinois teachers including Chicago, Urbanek says taxes for all Illinoisans would likely go up a little bit.

But not many public officials are willing to talk about what that would mean.

Ald. John Arena (45) said the referendum is "filler" beacuse voters won't vote No on the issue.

"All of Chicago’s gonna say, ‘Yeah. You guys downstate should pick up your own pensions. We shouldn’t do that any more.’ Did you need a referendum to know what the answer Chicagoans were gonna give?" Arena said.

Karen Lewis, the head of the Chicago Teachers Union, also thinks the referendum is unrealistic, calling it, “The weirdest thing I’ve seen.”

"It doesn’t make any sense," she said. "They’ve been screaming, ‘Illinois is broke. Illinois is broke.’ So why are they now putting a ballot question about, ‘Let’s get the state to pay for pensions.’ I mean, come on."

Lewis said there are more relevant issues facing the city that should’ve gotten a citywide referendum. Questions like should the Chicago school board be elected instead of appointed by the mayor.

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