Rep. Welch Talks Pension Crisis, Gun Control, Legislative Progress

Rep. Welch Town Hall

On Saturday, State Representative Emanuel “Chris” Welch (D-7th d.) addressed an audience of about twenty people in a town hall that took place inside the Maywood Council Chambers at 125 S. 5th Avenue. Attendees included Maywood Police Chief Tim Curry, former Trustee Gil Guzman and Trustee Mike Rogers.

Welch updated constituents on the legislation he’s had a hand in crafting and the House debates in which he’s been engaged since taking the oath of office on January 9, 2013. Although Welch has been the primary sponsor on fourteen bills, he emphasized four in particular. HB 278 would increase reporting standards between school principles and law enforcement.

HB 1139 would essentially replicate the federal government’s witness protection program on the state level. This bill is particularly pertinent to Welch, who was born and raised in Maywood. “I think somebody knows who killed Officer [Tom] Wood,” but they’re afraid to speak up because they fear for their safety,” he said. Welch was referring to the October 2006 murder of Maywood police officer Tom Wood, which has yet to be solved.

HB 129 is the first bill Rep. Welch sponsored. The bill specifies the first Monday in October as “Bring Your Parents to School Day.” Welch was inspired by his time on District 209’s Board of Education “We’d [the 209 Board] been doing this for 10 years at Proviso,” he said of the idea. But as harmless as it sounds, there was still someone who voted against the bill in committee and 16 representatives, all Republicans, who voted against the bill in the General Assembly.

Rep. Welch said that the ‘nay’ votes so surprised him that he wanted to hear an explanation for them himself. He approached all sixteen House members, asking them to clarify the reasons for their negative votes. “They thought I was restricting it to one day [only],” he said. “They were just confused on that.” After he insisted that one day was the minimum for how many times schools may implement the idea, not the maximum, the Republican members regretted their ‘nay’ votes. For Rep. Welch, it was a teaching moment. “We run as Democrats or Republicans, but we represent everybody in the State,” he said.

Two topics dominated the day’s dialogue – Gun Control and Pension Reform. Welch informed those in attendance that Illinois is the only state in the nation that has a constitutional restriction against concealed carry laws. This special exemption is commonly referred to as ‘constitutional carry’. “Does anyone here, other than the guy with the NRA t-shirt on, know what this is?” Somone in the audience explained it quite pithily. “It means that you can carry whatever you want.”

Welch said that the House has spent a remarkable amount of time in vigorous debate over how to handle gun control, but noted that by June 8, concealed carry is likely to be the law of the land. “The questions are will we allow guns in village halls, libraries, restaurants, schools?” Welch said that he voted to prohibit guns on mass transit and in other public places.

One bill in particular, HB 2265, has been at the center of legislative attention. The bill would amend the 2012 Criminal Code and establish a 3-year minimum prison sentence for violating certain “statutes concerning unlawful use of weapons.” Specific offenders listed in the bill’s synopsis on include gang members and felons.

But for all of its immediacy, the issue of gun control would seem minute compared to the looming fiscal reality facing the State. It’s a problem that Gov. Quinn has decided to resolve (according to a budget printout Welch issued to those in attendance) by decreasing spending in every department in the state, including human services, K-12 education, higher education, public safety and general services.

The cuts, ironically enough, come at a time when estimated government revenues for fiscal year 2014 actually increased by more than $1.3 billion over fiscal year 2013. What explains the discrepancy? Pensions. “If we don’t fix this problem now,” Rep. Welch said, “in 2 years, we’re going to be paying more on pensions than on k-12 education.”

The problem of paying for these defined benefits presents something of a dilemma for State lawmakers, considering the fact that the State is contractually obligated to pay people’s pensions–a constitutionally guaranteed right. Either pension reform pass constitutionally, or the State face a rash of extremely expensive lawsuits.

What makes the State’s pension problem even more threatening is that there don’t seem to be any win-win solutions. The less money the State has to deal with this issue, the more proposed solutions entails pitting competing economic interests against each other, with the interests of those at the top of the income and wealth pyramid inevitably trumping the interests of those nearer the bottom. Rep. Welch illustrated this looming conflict in an anecdote stemming from his time on the Higher Education Appropriations Committee.

Currently, there are about 7,000 people in Illinois’s pension system making at least $100,000. One of them, an unnamed University President, is set to retire. “This guy looked” no older than 60, Welch said. He makes about $400,000 a year. When he retires, he’ll see 80 percent of that salary for the rest of his life. Someone in the audience wanted to know how long he’d been President and how much he’d actually contributed to this bountiful pension. Rep. Welch said he didn’t know, but that it couldn’t have been very long (an estimation that easily checks out when on simply considers the average tenure of university presidents these days).

There are other elite pensioners who are collecting from as many as three pension systems (the State operates five — one for teachers, one for university employees, one for State employees, one for judges and another for the State legislators). For someone with the good fortune to have been, for instance, a University President, a State Senator and a judge, that person would be collecting pensions from all three of those pools for the rest of his or her life. It’s a phenomenon called ‘double-dipping’ and it’s perfectly legal.

It’s also in sharp relief to the common perception that the pension problem in Illinois is caused by white-collar and blue-collar workers, such as teachers, firemen and police officers. “Most people in the pension system,” Welch said, make between $30,000 and $40,000. Moreover, they don’t receive Social Security.

There have been numerous proposals voted on to deal with the pension problem, but most have failed, because they’re unconstitutional. Of the two that have passed, he voted for one. “The proposal caps pensions at $113,500.” But this is only one reform in a comprehensive suite of proposed solutions (at both the State and Federal levels) that will only make life a lot tougher for those in the lower- and middle-income brackets.

Anyone under 30 years old and contemplating a career in the field that involves manual labor and/or strenuous activity might think twice about that vocational path after considering he or she won’t be able to retire in Illinois before 67, five years over the current baseline of 62 (for those currently over 45).

Considering the magnitude and amount of the problems facing the State, it was no comfort to hear Rep. Welch’s rather frank testimonial to the occupational hazards of his own job. He said that the General Assembly is basically in perpetual crisis mode when it comes to voting on legislation. “Unlike when I was on the school board, where I got things 5 years in advance…I don’t know what I’m voting on until it literally hits the board.” He said that the rapidity is one of his biggest motivators to stay abreast of the issues.

But this qualification doesn’t go anywhere near calming the soul. Rep. Welch may be studious; as for his colleagues (those 16 Republicans and their mind-numbing confusion over a rather harmless bill to spur greater parental involvement in schools — a result of either knee-jerk ideological decision-making or inadequate due diligence or both) — we can only pray that the unintended consequences of their hazardous voting are better than the workplace hazards themselves.

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