Targeting: Squeezy's YouTube video features an unnamed actor trying to garner support for pension reform.

Meet Illinois' $100 billion python: Squeezy

Illinois Governor Pat Quinn uses cartoon snake to help push pension reform

Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn is using a cartoon character to raise public awareness of the state's pension problem.

Mr. Quinn last week introduced Squeezy the Pension Python, meant to highlight the “squeeze” pension payments are putting on other state services such as education, health care and public safety.

For months, state legislators have failed to enact meaningful reform on a pension system that — with unfunded liabilities of nearly $100 billion — is the worst funded in the nation and was called “unfixable” by a group of Chicago business leaders.

On Nov. 18, Mr. Quinn held a news conference to kick off a “Thanks in Advance” grass-roots campaign to engage state residents on the pension problem. “The issue of pension reform is the most urgent issue of our time, certainly of our decade,” Mr. Quinn said at the news conference.

The animated Squeezy is featured in a nearly four-minute YouTube video to drum up social media support for an issue that has plagued the state for decades. The video is part of a new work-in-progress website, thisismyillinois.com, which provides additional information on Illinois' pension problem.

“It's designed to be edgy and bring attention to the pension squeeze,” Brooke Anderson, spokeswoman for the governor, said of the video. “It's designed to provide information about how Illinois found itself in the pension squeeze and what's at stake.”

State Rep. Darlene Senger, a member of the state House Personnel and Pensions Committee, said the grass-roots campaign will not accomplish anything in the next few days, and the governor did not do voters justice in his method of explaining the problem.

The pension issue is “complicated the way it is and not something I find to be cartoonish,” said Ms. Senger. “It's a serious business ... and to make fun of it or dumb it down ... I don't think it's appropriate.”

Anders Lindall, spokesman for AFSCME Council 31, Chicago, which represents state employees, said the new website is a “misleading distraction” to the pension problem.

“In reality, politicians for decades diverted money owed to the retirement systems and used it to pay for other public services instead,” Mr. Lindall said in an e-mailed statement. “Rather than pretending that the pension debt is the cause when in fact it's a symptom of the state's unfair tax structure — and instead of comparing retirees to snakes — a worthwhile education effort would explain what's truly needed: A guarantee that politicians won't skip pension payments going forward, and adequate revenue to maintain vital services while the state pays the pension debt.”

Mr. Quinn has been touting his pension reform proposal to no avail since April, but the video makes no mention of the specifics in his plan.

A local actor runs through a brief history of pension funds before highlighting how the current problems are a result of the state making smaller payments than promised and the financial crisis decimating investment returns. Then the orange python takes over, squeezing images of the Illinois Capitol, a hospital and a police officer.

The video was released less than a week after the Civic Committee of The Commercial Club of Chicago issued a statement that said the pension system is “unfixable” under current circumstances and called on Mr. Quinn to enact four pension reform measures, largely in line with the governor's April proposal.

Mr. Quinn's proposal includes increasing by three percentage points the employee contribution, increasing the retirement age to 67 — to be phased in over several years — and shifting annual costs to local employers over 12 years or more. The civic committee agrees with the governor's proposal, but also proposed a benefit cap.

The Pew Center on the States ranked Illinois dead last in unfunded pension liability as of June 30, 2010. That only got worse — growing to a combined deficit of $96 billion from $83 billion among the five state pension plans — after the Illinois Teachers' Retirement System, Springfield, lowered its assumed rate of return to 8% from 8.5% in September. The funds' combined funded status is 40%.

Illinois Teachers spokesman Dave Urbanek said the pension fund “does not comment on the advocacy efforts of others, including state officials and legislators. Our role is to fairly and effectively administer the pension laws created by state officials and to ensure the fund's financial security.”

Mr. Quinn's campaign is designed to have residents spread the word of the “pension squeeze” through channels such as Facebook, Twitter, e-mail and YouTube. The video had about 10,000 views as of Nov. 20.

“What we're trying to do with our effort is empower (residents) to have their voices heard,” Ms. Anderson said. She said staff had been working on the video internally for some time at a nominal cost.

Cartooning aside, Mr. Quinn and members of the General Assembly aim to have meaningful pension reform agreed upon during the Jan. 3-8 final lame-duck legislative session.

This article originally appeared in the November 26, 2012 print issue as, "The $100 billion python".