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Akst: Pension reform way out of order

Published: Thursday, Dec. 5, 2013 11:10 p.m. CST

Great movie characters represent who we wish we could be if the need arises.

The movie person I’m channeling at the moment can’t fly, hack a computer network, or pop giant razor blades out of his knuckles.

He’s a hard-drinking loser who ruined his career and life through recklessness and a death wish. But during an adventurous Thanksgiving weekend with an idealistic prep school student, he realizes redemption is possible.

And that redemption begins when the man bluntly tells the head of the prep school (and the entire student body) what’s wrong with the picture.

“I’d show you out of order,” he yells. “You don’t know what out of order is. I’d show you, but I’m too old, I’m too tired, I’m too [expletive] blind. If I were the man I was five years ago, I’d take a flame thrower to this place!”

That’s from Al Pacino’s famous speech in “Scent of a Woman.”

Illinois is not a movie and I sure ain’t Al Pacino, but what the Legislature and governor did this week is way out of order.

Most of you know the details by now. In a squeaker vote on a 300-page bill nobody read during a special session carefully timed to afford maximum political cover, the people who caused the problem in the first place congratulated themselves on their supposed courage in passing pension legislation.

I like the way an editorial in Monday’s Chicago Sun-Times words the bill. “The bill kicks ordinary working people – secretaries, clerks, teachers and the like – in the teeth. Much of the bill’s $160 billion in savings comes from reducing the cost-of-living increases to their pensions and pushing back their retirement age.”

But as voluminous other voices seem to agree, nothing better is in the offing. The hole is too deep.

It’s reasonable to conclude my bitterness comes from the fact that I work in the public sector, I’m a union member, and my pension will be negatively affected. My wife is also a public sector employee whose pension will be affected.

That’s all true, but it’s only partially true. If the bill survives court challenges (a possibility, since it calls for public sector employees to pay slightly less into pensions), it will be a bitter pill, but I think we’ll be OK.

Whether hundreds of thousands of hard-working people who pay their share and follow the rules will be OK is an entirely open question.

What really has me angry at the moment is how state legislators and the governor are touting this supposedly bold, courageous stand.

First, recall the timing of this special session. Instead of fixing the problem decades ago, the vote occurred Tuesday for a specific reason. As the Burlington Free Press noted, “Tuesday’s vote is scheduled to occur one day after the deadline for candidates to file with the state board of elections to run in the 2014 primary – timing that could give some lawmakers concerned about a primary challenge the freedom to vote in favor of the bill.”

Whoa, bold.

Tuesday’s vote was a “great day for the taxpayers of Illinois,” said Gov. Pat Quinn. “We have all won.”

I’m a taxpayer, and Tuesday sure didn’t feel like a win to me.

It gets worse. I’m not even convinced the labor unions’ vow to sue is the right move, but I don’t have any better ideas.

Like the man said: I’m too tired.

• Jason Akst teaches journalism and public relations at Northern Illinois University. You can reach him at jasondakst@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter (@jasonakst).

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