Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn launches online pension awareness campaign

Ciara McCarthy, Reporter

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Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn launched a campaign this month to raise awareness about Illinois’ current pension crisis. The campaign, entitled “Thanks In Advance,” includes a website, Facebook page and Twitter handle.

The website features several videos, the first of which discusses “The Pension Squeeze.” In the clip, an actor explains the basics of the pension system and cites some sobering facts about the situation in Illinois. The video also stars “Squeezy, the Pension Python,” an animated, orange python whose image is coiled around various government buildings to demonstrate the way pensions squeeze the overall budget, causing other government programs to be cut.

The Pew Center for the States has ranked Illinois last in unfunded pension liability, which is estimated at $95 billion.

Mica Matsoff, a senior adviser to Quinn, said the campaign tries to raise public awareness and increase education about the complexities of the pension system. The campaign is also intended to bring a sense of urgency to addressing pension reform.

“Our public pension crisis is the most urgent issue facing everyone in the state,” she said. “The governor thinks it is imperative that we solve this immediately.”

Matsoff said most constituents don’t know pensions are the biggest problem facing Illinois.

On Tuesday, the campaign released two more videos created in partnership with Salman Khan of the online learning program Khan Academy. Quinn’s staff immediately thought of working with Khan because of his reputation as an “expert explainer” of complicated subjects, Matsoff said. One video explains pensions in general, and the second specifically examines the Illinois system.

Quinn’s campaign and Illinois’ pension crisis have garnered nationwide attention. A recent editorial in The Wall Street Journal with the headline “Illinois the ‘Unfixable’” painted a grim picture of Illinois’ fiscal state and voiced doubt that Quinn’s campaign would be very effective. Many have taken issue with the nature of the campaign and complained that it treats a serious subject with cartoons and slogans.

“People may characterize it as juvenile or simplistic or sophomoric, but it is raising discussion about an issue that’s very important to Illinois,” said Mark Fowler, executive director of the Northwest Municipal Conference, an advocacy group working toward pension reform.

State Rep. Elaine Nekritz (D-Northbrook), chairwoman of the Personnel & Pensions Committee, agreed and said anything that increases attention to the issue is a positive step.

The Associated Press reported Wednesday that the website has attracted 28,000 unique visitors. Matsoff said the governor’s office received calls from constituents who had been thinking about the “pension squeeze,” some for the first time in their lives.

The website refrains from discussion about how to fix the pension crisis because the aim of the campaign is to raise awareness about the issues, Matsoff said.

Nekritz said substantial change will come from legislation passed in the Illinois General Assembly but warned amending the pension system would be difficult.

“None of the changes we are going to make can be done without some pain being inflicted,” she said. “At the end of the day, some difficult choices need to be made.”