Sunday, June 17, 2012

Playing to the Gallery (the Sinister Appeal of HJRCA 49) by John Dillon

“…cause that’s all you ever hear about in this country is our differences. That’s all the media and the politicians are ever talking about, the things that separate us, things that make us different from [one another]…They try to divide the rest of the country. They keep the classes fighting with [one another]…” - George Carlin

“…In fine, we thought he was everything/To make us wish that we were in his place./So on we worked and waited for the light,/And went without the meat, and cursed the bread;/ And Richard Cory, one calm summer night, / Went home and put a bullet through his head." – Edwin Arlington Robinson

Idiom: In brief, playing to the gallery means to seek popular acclaim. The expression’s origin is from the theater, and it describes the message or content of the play as written for the less intelligent or to those who could not afford the best seats in the house and, therefore, had to sit in the cheaper gallery. In later years, it became a way to describe the person who cheapens his own abilities while seeking the approval of the uneducated populace and appealing to base instincts and interests. And this brings us to House Speaker Madigan’s Constitutional Amendment HJRCA 49, passed by all but two senators in the General Assembly.

Madigan’s HJRCA 49 plays to the gallery by exploiting the very real anger and envy that can separate all of us, yet the amendment ironically does nothing to ameliorate any of the fiscal woes that our State and its citizenry face. On the surface, Madigan’s Constitutional Amendment promises to make it tougher to provide pension benefit increases by requiring a three-fifths vote by both houses. In fact, there is no part of the proposed Amendment that will assist in the paying down of the unfunded liability, which threatens to strangle the state’s financial budget.

There is nothing that works to relieve the state from the madness of an ill-designed ramp-up developed in 1995 (P.A. 88-0593), one which guarantees a tsunami of increasing payments into 2035. No attempt is made to alleviate or to address the possibly federally-prohibited forced payment of extra compensation by Tier-Two employees. In every sense, HJRCA 49 represents Madigan’s utmost cynical political gesture and his complete disdain for the people on all sides; thereby, as usual, we all become victims of his political intrigues.

HJRCA 49 is crafted to appease the “gallery” or for those who sorely seek revenge. Nearly half a decade into the Great Recession, the toll on the shocked middle class in this country and state has understandably rendered people permanently economically injured and justifiably angry.

A few examples:

“…the typical American family lost nearly 40% of its wealth between 2007 and 2010, shaving the median net worth to (lower) levels not seen since the early 1990’s” (See Los Angeles Times, June 11, 2012).

Median home equity for families owning homes fell nearly 43%, from $95,300 to $55,000. Incomes have likewise fallen nearly eight percent (See Business Week, June 11, 2012).

The numbers of children being born in the State of Illinois into poverty have increased to nearly 20% - that’s one in five children living in a family of four earning less than $22,000 per year (

One out of every seven households in Illinois has a zero or negative net worth, and increases in personal bankruptcy filings in the collar counties have exploded to an average of over 200% (See Heartland Alliance for Human Needs & Human Rights).
Indeed, this is fertile soil for sowing seeds of hate and anger, a perfect bedding for something like Speaker Madigan’s HJRCA 49. Add to that the emotionalism and strident catchwords of the corporate-owned media and the local power groups like the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago.

Indeed, the Chicago Tribune often highlights its singular role in successfully assisting Madigan’s proposal for a vote in November. “The action (passage of HJRCA 49) comes as the state faces a yawning gap in public pension funding and follows Tribune reports that have exposed how public officials and union members have padded pensions with lucrative sweeteners. The measure also potentially serves as an attempt to channel voter anger over burgeoning costs of public pensions” (

For years, the Chicago Tribune has been concentrating on the exceptional and unacceptable manipulators of pensions in the public arena (Chicago Labor Leaders, previous members of the General Assembly, the previous Mayor of Chicago, public school administrators seeking work outside the state after receiving a large pension...), and subsequently applying those spectacular sins to the “much too generous” pensions for public unions entirely.

After all, it’s neither the unique nor the extraordinary the Chicago Tribune is after: it is all of us in the public sector. On every opportunity, the Tribune decries the basic concepts of collective bargaining. Witness the drawing by their political cartoonist Scott Stantis a day after Scott Walker’s failed recall in Wisconsin. And, while the choice of images – a gorilla-like caricature in a zoot suit – is simple and puerile, it does echo the kind of anger we hear directed at collective bargaining across the board from the Tribune.

In short, like Speaker Madigan, the Tribune also plays (or screams) to the gallery. And who is the gallery? Why, it is of course all of us – people who live in a state awash in debt and burdened by bills that have grown to mountainous proportion – gifts from our political predecessors, some incarcerated and some walking blithely about. And in Springfield? Even our best politicians face daunting challenges to understand the basics of needed pension reform, intelligent changes in tax structuring, and a better methodology to tackle the unfunded liability.

It takes considerable time and mental energy to separate these items, much less make serious decisions about how to correct them. Instead, the legislators often find themselves coerced or coaxed to accept whatever appears before them. Representative Mike Bost (R-Murphysboro) made abundantly clear what many of his colleagues say in closed rooms to one another and their constituents (See YouTube video).

On the other hand, HJRCA 49’s four pages is seemingly simple, apparently commonsensical, and outwardly direct – very much the opposite of Speaker Michael Madigan and his political mind. It would be inspiring to imagine leadership in Illinois that makes changes to the fiscal policies of the State of Illinois to revolutionize and remedy the budget issues, the result of decades of underfunding the pensions' needed costs. The Speaker chooses not to do so.

Instead, Madigan chooses to play a deadly game pitting one group of workers against another, neighbor against neighbor, and possibly using the amendment to close the door on the state’s contractual pension obligations for all time.

HJRCA demonstrates the lowest and most vicious form of contemptuous political expression emerging from an assembly of the supposedly conscientious.

Vote NO on HJRCA 49!

This article was originally printed in Pension Education, "Pension Vocabulary of the Week," June 17, 2012):

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