Two Ways to Make Squeezy the Pension Python’s Website Less Embarrassing

The governor’s hokey pension snake drew more attention to pension reform than it’s gotten in months, but Squeezy’s site is kind of a dud. There’s nothing wrong with a little juvenilia, but the adults need something to play with as well.

I’m apparently alone in enjoying the Mr. Show-quality spectacle of Squeezy the Pension Python, but I will say one thing in Squeezy’s defense: the exchange in the CapFax comments is what Squeezy is meant to address:

But outside of Mick Dumke and Rich Miller, who in Illinois is dedicated to helping the public understand how public budgets work?

Go look at the polls. Year after year, the public strongly opposes cuts in programs, and mostly opposes the revenue to pay for them.

Someone’s got to help them understand why that position is untenable, and I don’t think it can be done in a 140 character tweet or 30 second campaign-style ad.

Sigh. Lots of people are dedicated to helping Illinoisans understand how public pensions work. It’s most of what the Civic Fed does. Progress Illinois has done excellent work on the state budget. The Tribune and Sun-Times editorial boards continue to beat the drum. But it doesn’t really get through, and when it does it’s in stark, demonizing terms that have nothing to do with how the pensions will ultimately be addressed.

So: a cartoon snake. It reeks of desperation, but I’d be desperate too.

But the My Illinois/Thanks in Advance site suffers from the same problems as much of the coverage—it’s exclusively about how bad the problem is, and there’s nothing about how anyone intends to fix it. Why not list them? This October presentation to the League of Women Voters is a pretty good start, breaking down the plans proposed by Michael Madigan, Tom Cross, and Mike Fortner (PDF). It doesn’t have Elaine Nekritz’s plan, but you can read about that here; it’s pretty straightforward. Quinn himself proposed a plan in April; it’s here. There’s a lot of overlap, so much so that it’s likely that if anything comes of pension reform, it’ll come from a menu of these plans: COLA reduction, increased retirement age, pensionable-salary cap, a hybrid defined-benefit/defined-contribution plan.

The odds are good that pension reforms will more than passingly resemble these plans. There’s no reason Squeezy can’t at least tell us what’s currently on the table.

The site has some okay presentation of numbers, but it’s dead data. For more you can go to the SERS site, but it’s all in PDF format. TRS, ditto. Illinois, like Chicago, has a data portal with machine-readable files, but it’s a weird grab-bag, with nothing on budgeting, much less on pensions. There are enough data geeks in the state that someone could make use of it. Embarrassing as the numbers are, it’s better for the state to have it in the hands of civic-minded wonks.

Squeezy’s pratfalls have been good for attention; the shame isn’t the cartoon snake, but what people find when they follow him home.

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