Sunday, June 17, 2018

Pittsburgh cartoonist says he was fired after 25 years for making fun of Trump

"Rob Rogers lost his job at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on Thursday in move he says, "'goes against what a free press is all about'":

"A cartoonist who lost his job at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette believes his searing portrayals of Donald Trump were the most likely cause of his firing.

"Rob Rogers was terminated on Thursday by the paper for which he had worked for 25 years, after six cartoons in a row were spiked and his employer tried to change his terms of working, he said.

"His last cartoon depicted a bloated man representing the USA, impaled on a steel girder with 'trade war' written on it, waving the Stars and Stripes and saying: 'Take that, Canada, Mexico and Europe.' 

"After being fired, Rogers drew Trump shaking hands with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and saying: 'You’re so talented and your people love you, look how they’re smiling!'

"Kim is standing on a pile of skulls...

"Rogers was a finalist for the Pulitzer prize in 1999, for cartoons that skewered then president Bill Clinton, mostly for the Monica Lewinsky scandal. He said he was feeling 'anger and outrage' but added: 'I saw this coming a while back.'

"After leaving the Post-Gazette, Rogers wrote an editorial for the New York Times headlined: 'I was fired for making fun of Trump...'

"After a series of cartoons satirizing Trump were canceled this month, he said, he was sent a list of new working conditions he called draconian, subjecting him to an unprecedented level of oversight and 'clamping down' on his power of free expression. He refused to accept and was fired, he said..." (The Guardian).

Saturday, June 16, 2018

Taking Note: Poetry Reading Is Up!—Federal Survey Results by Sunil Iyengar

“In recent months, I’ve come across various news articles and at least one press release declaring that social media has contributed greatly to poetry’s readership. Some of these sources even attribute to the technology a bump in 2017 poetry book sales. While it remains unknown how much of that reading is directly due to these still-emerging platforms, we now can report with confidence: poetry reading in the United States has increased since five years previously.
Nearly 12 percent (11.7 percent) of adults read poetry in the last year, according to new data from the National Endowment for the Arts’ 2017 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts (SPPA). That’s 28 million adults. As a share of the total U.S. adult population, this poetry readership is the highest on record over a 15-year period of conducting the SPPA, a research partnership with the U.S. Census Bureau.

“The 2017 poetry-reading rate is five percentage points up from the 2012 survey period (when the rate was 6.7 percent) and three points up from the 2008 survey period (when the rate was 8.3 percent). This boost puts the total rate on par with 2002 levels, with 12.1 percent of adults estimated to have read poetry that year.
“Growth in poetry reading is seen across most demographic sub-groups (e.g., gender, age, race/ethnicity, and education level), but here are highlights:
• Young adults have increased their lead, among all age groups, as poetry readers. Among 18-24-year-olds, the poetry-reading rate more than doubled, to 17.5 percent in 2017, up from 8.2 percent in 2012. Among all age groups, 25-34-year-olds had the next highest rate of poetry-reading: 12.3 percent, up from 6.7 percent in 2012.

• Women also showed notable gains (14.5 percent in 2017, up from 8.0 percent in 2012). As in prior years, women accounted for more than 60 percent of all poetry-readers. Men’s poetry-reading rate grew from 5.2 percent in 2012 to 8.7 percent in 2017.

• Among racial/ethnic subgroups, African Americans (15.3 percent in 2017 up from 6.9 percent in 2012), Asian Americans (12.6 percent, up from 4.8 percent), and other non-white, non-Hispanic groups (13.5 percent, up from 4.7 percent) now read poetry at the highest rates. Furthermore, poetry-reading increased among Hispanics (9.7 percent, up from 4.9 percent) and non-Hispanic whites (11.4 percent, up from 7.2 percent).

• Adults with only some college education showed sharp increases in their poetry-reading rates.  Of those who attended but did not graduate from college, 13.0 percent read poetry in 2017, up from 6.6 percent in 2012. College graduates (15.2 percent, up from 8.7 percent) and adults with graduate or professional degrees (19.7 percent, up from 12.5 percent) also saw sizeable increases.

• Urban and rural residents read poetry at a comparable rate (11.8 percent of urban/metro and 11.2 percent of rural/non-metro residents).

“Reviewing the data about young adults who read poetry, I couldn’t help but recall the 2006 founding of Poetry Out Loud, a program cosponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Poetry Foundation, and administered in partnership with the state arts agencies of all 50 states, the District of Columbia, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico.

“More than 300,000 students from more than 2,300 high schools around the country participate in this poetry recitation competition. Last April, champions from 53 states and territories competed in the National Finals here in D.C. This year’s winner was high school senior Janae Claxton from the First Baptist School of Charleston, South Carolina. Janae and her fellow contestants should be ample proof that the genre continues to thrive, but it’s good to see the numbers.

“I also spoke about the findings with Amy Stolls, NEA Director of Literature. ‘These increases definitely reflect what we’ve been witnessing over in our corner of the office,’ Amy told me. ‘I suspect social media has had an influence, as well as other robust outreach activities and efforts, many of which we support through our grants to publishers and presenters, fellowships to individual poets, Poetry Out Loud, and the NEA Big Read.’ Each year, the NEA Big Read supports community reading programs in approximately 75 communities nationwide, and includes poetry books such as Joy Harjo’s How We Became Human and Adrian Matejka’s The Big Smoke in the available titles.

“Complete results from the 2017 SPPA will be rolled out over the next several months, beginning with findings about arts attendance and reading habits. Subsequent reports will address arts creation, arts consumption via digital media, and other arts-participation topics. The raw data itself, along with technical documentation, will be posted to the NEA’s National Archive of Data on Arts & Culture, so that researchers and policymakers everywhere may dig deeper into these and other findings. Stay tuned!”

Taking Note: Poetry Reading Is Up—Federal Survey Results by Sunil Iyengar, NEA Director of Research and Analysis, June 7, 2018

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

$100,000+ Pension Is the Exception and Not the Rule in Illinois

In recent weeks, a new website identifying 30,000 TRS members as a "$100,000+ Salary & Pension Club" has been circulated via social media and several news sites.
The website was created by the watchdog organization. In Forbes magazine, the group said that Illinois is home to "the most out-of-control" and "corrupted... education pay-and-pension systems..."
However, a closer look at the numbers shows that membership in this "$100 K Club" was the exception for Illinois teachers, not the rule.
TRS provided the group with records through a Freedom of Information Act request. There were 30,492 active or retired TRS members in 2017 who either received a salary or a pension of $100,000 or more.
But here's what chose not to mention:
  • There were a total of 268,608 active and retired TRS members in 2017. Therefore, the $100 K Club comprised just 11.4 percent of these TRS members. In other words, 88.6 percent of active and retired teachers in Illinois were not members of the $100 K Club.
  • School districts throughout Illinois paid 18,760 teachers a salary of $100,000 or more in 2017, out of a total of 160,488 active members.
  • There were 11,732 retired members receiving a pension of $100,000 or more in 2017 – out of a total of 108,120.
  • The average active TRS member salary in 2017 was $71,773. The average TRS pension in 2017 was $54,180.
The website created by the enables anyone to search a map of Illinois and pinpoint all TRS members who received either a salary or a TRS pension of $100,000 or more in 2017.

TRS did not provide with any member addresses or other personally identifiable information, but was required by the FOIA law to sort member salary and pension information by the school districts where active members were employed and by the last districts that employed retired members.

Teachers' Retirement System of the State of Illinois  


What is the purpose for publishing a list of Teacher Retirement System’s recipients who receive over $100,000 a year (a small fraction of the total retirees) when, in fact, the average TRS recipient receives a pension of approximately $54,000 a year? Is it an attempt to deceive the public through a faulty cause-and-effect understanding of the State’s budget deficit? 

Does it seem fair and reasonable to exacerbate some people’s blind and misdirected anger by fallaciously claiming that the pension systems are the cause for the State’s chronic budget deficit?  Is it because some people do not want teachers and other public employees to have a pension? 

There are approximately 269,000 active and retired teachers in Illinois (Teachers Retirement System). Besides committing the fallacy of composition (to reason that the properties or minority of individuals are necessarily the properties of the whole which they constitute – in other words, 11 percent of a population is not representative of the whole), what has OpenTheBooks established except for a conspicuously-deep prejudice against teachers and administrators who have earned a constitutionally-promised pension that they have consistently contributed to throughout their careers and was under-funded by the State of Illinois for decades? 

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Illinois State Pension Plans: When is a solution not a solution? by Bob Lyons

When it does not solve the problem. In 1994, the five state pension plans (TRS, SERS, SURS, JRS, GARS) had a total unfunded liability of $15 billion. That was a problem, and the State of Illinois acted. Led by Governor Edgar, the General Assembly voted unanimously to follow a plan to achieve a 90 percent funding for the five state retirement systems by fiscal year 2045. By the time the plan went into effect in 1995, the unfunded liability had grown to $20 billion. After twenty-two years, the unfunded liability was $130 billion.

In 1995, newly retired, I was glad that there was finally a plan to deal with the unfunded liability in the Illinois pensions, but I did not question the details. Well, just last week I heard a state representative, one who taken tough votes in support of retired teachers, say that we should be pleased that the General Assembly had followed the plan in voting to fund the pensions for FY 2019. I think for that reason alone we need to look at what following the plan has meant for the state pension systems:
First, there was a 15-year ramp to gradually increase the state’s contributions, which was designed to make it easier to sell the 50-year plan to the legislators by allowing them to vote to “solve” the problem of funding the pensions while still enabling them to continue to vote for popular projects.
Second, the plan could be amended when needed to allow the legislators to renege on payments when they did not have the money, which they did in fiscal years 2006 and 2007: $2.3 billion was subtracted from the pension payments with the approval of the IEA, the IFT and SEIU in order to spend money on more “popular causes” and to gain the approval of a four-year extension of the ERO. It is certainly possible that the union leaders did not realize that shorting the pension funds by more than $2 billion would add over $6 billion to the unfunded liability. By the time the ramp had come to an end in 2010, the unfunded liability had grown to almost $76 billion.
With the end of the so-called ramp, the legislature realized that with the significant growth of the unfunded liability they needed to be committed to the ever-growing payments.
The real failure of the 50-year plan was it allowed for the unfunded liability to continue to grow, and it was heavily back-loaded. The original funding scheme did not call for the pension payments to grow large enough to begin to reduce the growth of the unfunded liability until 2034, and it called for the total funding in the last five years of the plan to a total of $75 billion.
While it could be argued that any plan was better than no plan, they could have made a better plan. It is equivalent to paying down your credit card. Smaller payments in the beginning mean larger payments in the long run. Any actuary would have told them that the best plan would have called for dividing the amount owed into even payments with a goal of eventually reaching 100% funded. However, this would require larger payments. The sooner a pension fund reaches full funding, the better. Pension funds invest every dollar they can with the hope that their investments will grow and reduce the need for external funding. Illinois pension funds, on the other hand, are currently required to take money out of profitable investments in order to pay annuitants their pensions. “They had to eat their seed corn or starve.”
The last five years has seen the funding grow for the five state pensions funds while at the same time the funded ratio has barely moved. In 2013, the five funds were 39.3% funded; in 2014: 39.3%; in 2015: 40.9%; in 2016: 39.2% and in 2017: 39.9%. In the last five years, each of the pension systems made money and their investments grew, but the unfunded liability climbed. The state’s payments were also less than what was needed and, as already stated, it was $130 billion by the end of FY2017.
The new budget for FY2019 calls for the state to contribute to the TRS pension fund a total of $4.466 billion, a 9.05% increase over this year’s contribution of $4.095 billion. More than 70% of the payment to TRS is to partially pay what they owe because of the underfunding. You can expect to hear state legislators say with some pride that this payment meets the requirement of the 50-year plan, but it must be noted that the payment, as large as it is, still falls far short of moving TRS toward full funding by $2.9 billion.
In 2017, TRS reported that its “investment returned 12.6% net of fees, and the Systems 30 year-return was 8.1%. Total investment income was $5.5 billion.” We will not learn how TRS has done for FY2018, which ends June 30 until late August when the last numbers for real estate and private equity funds are finally reported. We do know that the $49.468 billion that we had at the end of June last year had grown to $51.541 billion at the end of March of this year. While still dependent on how investments do in the last couple of weeks of the fiscal year, it certainly looks like this will be another positive year for TRS, but it will still likely end the year with about 41% funded.
The Teachers’ Retirement System ended 2017 at 40.2% funded; the University Retirement System was at 44.4% funded; the State Employees’ Retirement System was 35.5%; the Judges Retirement System was 35.6%, and the General Assembly Retirement System was 14.9%. Yes, the retirement system for the legislators, which has over 400 annuitants, is just only a market crash away from insolvency, and many of the most recently elected senators and representatives have opted out of the system.
That General Revenue portion of the Illinois state budget for FY2019 calls for spending $38.5 billion and, of that, the total for the five pensions system is $8.5 billion. In addition, the state will pay $1.6 billion in debt service because Governor Quinn borrowed money to pay pensions seven years ago. In almost every state in the nation, three to four percent of their budget for pensions is considered normal. In Illinois, we are paying 22%, or 26% if we add the cost of borrowing. Let’s recall that is still not an adequate payment to stop, or reverse our underfunding from growing.
That is the dilemma that the State of Illinois and the citizens of the state are paying for. It is late, but the only real solution is a variation of the one suggested by Ralph Martire of the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability. He calls for re-amortizing the debt with equal payments with a goal to reach 80% funding and to sell bonds to make the payments. Paying the bonds simply shifts the responsibility to the next generation. I would prefer passing a referendum for a progressive income tax and using the increased tax revenue to try to pay down the unfunded liability directly through equal annual payments. Considering the role the new progressive state income would play in solving what the state owes the pensions, I think we should accept paying state taxes on larger pensions. I do not think it is fair to ask others to pay more unless we are willing to help contribute to a solution that works—Bob Lyons.
Bob Lyons, retired teacher and former annuitant representative on the board of the Illinois Teacher Retirement System (TRS).

Friday, June 8, 2018

The Illinois Legislature’s 3% Cap on Retiring Teachers’ Pensionable Salaries Is a Violation of the Pension Protection Clause

Can the State of Illinois do indirectly what the Pension Protection Clause prohibits it from doing directly?  Isn’t the State’s obvious intent and effect of shifting certain pension costs to school districts a de facto cap on increases in pensionable salaries? So what will the IEA and IFT do about this attempt to reduce TRS members’ pensions by limiting pensionable salaries?

This is from an earlier blog post. It was written by the Chicago law firm Tabet DiVito & Rothstein LLC:

“…As the Illinois Supreme Court has explained, ‘once an individual begins work and becomes a member of a public retirement system, any subsequent changes to the Pension Code that would diminish the benefits conferred by membership in the retirement system cannot be applied to that individual.’ In re Pension Reform Litigation (Heaton v. Quinn), 2015 IL 118585, ¶ 46; see also Kanerva v. Weems, 2014 IL 115811, ¶ 38; Jones v. Municipal Employees’ Annuity & Benefit Fund of Chicago, 2016 IL 119618, ¶¶ 36-47. 

“Applying this constitutional rule, our courts have repeatedly invalidated amendments to the Illinois Pension Code that would change the calculation of a pension system member’s pensionable salary so as to diminish that member’s pension benefits. In Heaton, the Illinois Supreme Court invalidated legislation which, among other things, ‘cap[ped] the maximum salary that may be considered when calculating the amount of a member’s retirement annuity.’ Heaton, 2015 IL 118585, ¶ 27 (describing P.A. 98-0599). 

“Likewise, in Felt v. Board of Trustees of Judges Retirement System, our Supreme Court invalidated legislation that changed a judge’s pensionable salary from the ‘salary of the judge on the last day of judicial service’ to ‘the average salary for the final year of service as a judge.’ See Felt, 107 Ill. 2d 158, 161-63 (1985). 

“Likewise, in Kraus v. Board of Trustees of Police Pension Fund of Village of Niles, the Illinois Appellate Court held that a police officer on disability could not constitutionally be denied his right under the Pension Code to ‘receive a pension of one half the salary attached to his rank for the year preceding his retirement on regular pension.’ While the Pension Code had been amended so as to change that formula, that Pension Code amendment could not be applied to the officer because it was enacted after he joined the pension system. See Kraus, 72 Ill. App. 3d 833, 843-51 (1979). In other words, it is clear that variables in the pension formula that are tied to a pension system member’s salary cannot be changed to that member’s detriment after he or she has joined the pension system…

“Under existing law, pension system members’ salary increases are factored into the formula that is used to calculate their pension annuities. By way of example, under section 16-121 of the Pension Code, a TRS member’s salary is defined as the ‘actual compensation received by a teacher during any school year and recognized by the system in accordance with rules of the board.’ That ‘actual compensation’ will incorporate any salary increases a teacher has earned over the course of his career, and that teacher’s ‘salary’ will be a variable in the formula used to determine his pension annuity…

“[A] pensionable salary freeze does not stand on any different footing from the pensionable salary changes that were held unconstitutional in Heaton, Felt and Kraus. The principle is simple: One’s pensionable salary is a key variable in the pension formula. A pension system member currently enjoys the right to have any future salary increases factored into his or her pensionable salary. The Cullerton proposal would change that statutory formula so as to freeze pensionable salaries as of a date certain and thereby reduce pensions. That is a violation of the Pension Protection Clause of the Illinois Constitution.

“Of course, public sector employers generally may simply decide not to give their employees a raise. But that is beside the point… Changing the law to provide that future salary increases will not count towards one’s pensionable salary constitutes a diminishment of one’s constitutionally protected pension rights. Such a change would suffer the same fate as other changes to the Pension Code’s formulation of one’s pensionable salary…

“[M]embers of Illinois public sector pension systems have an existing legal right for any salary increases that they may earn between now and their retirement to be factored into their pensionable salary…” 

About the authors: Gino L. DiVito and John M. Fitzgerald are partners at the Chicago law firm Tabet DiVito & Rothstein LLC. Mr. DiVito is a retired justice of the Illinois Appellate Court. 

For the original article, click here.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Changes to the Illinois Pension Code

From the Teachers Retirement System of Illinois:

In early June, three changes to the Illinois Pension Code that affect some TRS members were signed into law:
  • A reduction in the “threshold” affecting employer contributions on year-to-year salary increases for a TRS member from 6 percent to 3 percent, if the pay hikes would factor into the calculation of a member’s initial pension.
  • A new law requires TRS to offer all eligible inactive members a chance for a one-time, irrevocable “accelerated pension benefit payment” in return for giving up any future claim to a TRS benefit.
  • A new law requires TRS to offer all retiring Tier 1 members a chance for a one-time, irrevocable change in the automatic annual increase to their TRS pensions, along with an “accelerated pension benefit payment.”
Implementation of these new laws will take time. The statute says TRS must implement the law “as soon as practical,” and is in the process of developing the IT systems and protocols necessary to administer these acts.
We cannot answer all questions at this time regarding any effect these laws will have on any member’s TRS benefits.
Here’s what we know:
  • After July 1, 2018, the threshold is 3 percent. Until July 1, 2018, the threshold is 6 percent.
  • The 3 percent threshold applies only to raises and salaries paid to TRS members “under a contract or collective bargaining agreement entered into, amended, or renewed on or after” June 4, 2018 for a school year that begins after July 1, 2018.
  • The 6 percent threshold applies to raises and salaries paid to TRS members “under a contract or collective bargaining agreement entered into, amended, or renewed” before June 4, 2018, even if payments pursuant to the contract or collective bargaining agreement extend beyond July 1, 2018.
  • TRS will work with school districts in the future to help them determine which threshold applies in specific cases.
  • Under the new law, if a school district grants an educator a raise in excess of 3 percent in any given year and that raise factors into the educator’s initial pension calculation, then the school district must pay for the long–term cost of the portion of an educator’s pension created by the portion of the raise that exceeds 3 percent.
  • This law applies only to raises that will influence the salaries that members will use to calculate their “final average salaries,” a key number in the formula that determines members’ initial pensions.
  • There are two permanent exemptions in the law that spell out when the 3 percent threshold does not apply:
    • An educator that leaves one district and receives a raise greater than 3 percent when they start to teach in another school district.
    • Educators whose jobs and salaries are affected by school district consolidations or annexations.
  • Inactive members in both Tier 1 and Tier 2 are eligible for the “accelerated pension benefit payment.”
  • To be eligible, an inactive member must have “accrued sufficient service credit to be eligible to receive a retirement annuity” at some point in the future when other eligibility criteria are met.
    • An inactive Tier 1 member must have at least five years of TRS service.
    • An inactive Tier 2 member must have at least 10 years of TRS service.
  • Inactive members cannot add service credit from another public pension system to their TRS service in order to meet the eligibility requirement for a TRS benefit.
  • The buyout program will exist until June 30, 2021.
  • The buyout amount will equal 60 percent of the present value of the member’s anticipated pension benefits.
  • The member cannot receive the buyout as cash.
    • The buyout amount will only be paid to the member in the form of a “rollover” into a private tax-qualified retirement plan.
  • As soon as practical after the law takes effect, TRS must “offer each eligible person the opportunity” to participate in the buyout program.
    • The offer shall include a TRS estimate of how much the member will receive through the buyout program.
  • If an inactive member accepts the buyout, he/she cannot pay the buyout back to TRS in order to re-establish past service.
  • If an inactive member accepts the buyout and she/he returns to active service, her/his TRS service credit starts accumulating on the day she/he returns to active service.
  • When the law is implemented, TRS must ask every Tier 1 member upon retirement whether she/he wants to participate in this program.
    • This is a voluntary program.
    • Only retiring Tier 1 members are eligible.
    • The decision to participate in the program is irreversible and final.
  • Members participating in the program will:
    • Renounce their rights to the current Tier 1 AAI – a 3 percent annual increase in their pension benefits that always is calculated from the amount of their current pensions.
    • Accept a new AAI – an annual 1.5 percent increase in their pensions that always is calculated from the amount of their original pensions.
    • Receive a lump-sum “accelerated pension benefit payment” that equals 70 percent of the monetary difference between estimated current value of the 3 percent Tier 1 AAI and the estimated current value of the 1.5 percent Tier 1 AAI.
  • The alternative AAI and “accelerated pension benefit payment” program will exist until June 30, 2021.
  • The alternative 1.5 percent Tier 1 AAI takes effect on the January 1 following age 67, or the first anniversary of the member’s retirement, whichever is later.
  • Program participants cannot repay the “accelerated pension benefit payment” to TRS.
  • The member cannot receive the “accelerated pension benefit payment” as cash.
    • The accelerated payment will only be paid to the member in the form of a “rollover” into a private tax-qualified retirement plan.
  • If a member retires, accepts the alternative 1.5 percent AAI and then returns to active service, the member’s AAI will be 1.5 percent if they retire again.
  • The selection of the alternative 1.5 percent AAI by a retiring member also affects the annual increases in any survivor benefit due to beneficiaries when the member dies.