Jim Dey: Well, isn’t he special?

What’s the state of Illinois coming to?

That’s the question a lot of taxpayers are asking about the effectively bankrupt, politically dysfunctional, high tax, economically weak Land of Lincoln. They’re, generally, the outsiders, the ones required to pick up the tab for insiders who sup at the trough of government largesse, where there’s always enough money to skim off the top even if there isn’t always enough to pay for vital public services.

But the insiders have their gripes, too. And, from their perspective, the question of what the state is coming to makes perfect sense and, consequently, deserves a public airing.

Consider the embittered David Piccioli, a consummate insider who worked for Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan for 10 years (1987-97) before going to work as a teacher’s union lobbyist in Springfield.

That’s not the only work he did. Indeed, it’s not even the most significant work Piccioli ever did.

That came on Jan. 22, 2007, when Piccioli worked as a substitute teacher in the Springfield school district.

It was on the basis of that single’s day work — he was paid $93 — that Piccioli sought to collect a Teachers Retirement System pension that, after his 2012 retirement, would approach $70,000 a year.

A Sangamon County judge recently decided that Piccioli wasn’t entitled to such a generous pension, even though he followed the legal requirements to collect it to the letter.

“I joined the system legally. I obeyed all the laws. … I paid all the contributions,” a disbelieving Piccioli told the Springfield newspaper.

In other words, what’s this world coming to when a fellow can’t keep what he stole fair and square?

Piccioli’s plight is one for the books, first Illinois’ statutes and then law books.

But it’s a product of the deeply corrupt instincts that govern our politics.

For example, hundreds of individuals in Illinois who work for private entities are allowed to collect public pensions. So it ought to be no surprise that people like Piccioli, who worked for a purely private teacher’s union, wanted to collect a pension from the teachers’ public system.

The benefits are terrific, far exceeding what most people in the private sector collect.

So, in the aftermath of the 2006 election, the Illinois Federation of Teachers sought a favor from the now-imprisoned Gov. Rod Blagojevich. The IFT, which employed Piccioli, had contributed more than $500,000 to the Democrats over a two-year period, and it was payback time.

In his opinion striking down Piccioli’s pension bonanza, Circuit Judge Ryan Cadagin wrote that the union “drafted” a special provision to add to the state pension law. It was introduced by former Democratic state Rep. Gary Hannig of Litchfield, a top lieutenant to Madigan.

The provision allowed teachers’ union employees to join TRS if they worked as little as one day as a substitute teacher. Further, the law stated that they could obtain pension credits “for their employment with the union before becoming TRS members.”

But those interested had to move fast. They needed to have a substitute teaching certificate, to have worked at least one day as a substitute teacher and to become a TRS member before Blagojevich signed the bill into law on Feb. 27, 2007.

Piccioli and a colleague, fellow union bigshot Steven Preckwinkle, acted with dispatch and then sat back to await their promised riches — gold-plated teacher pensions they obtained with single day’s work. Piccioli also bought credit time to cover his union employment before he joined TRS in 2007.

Some things, however, can’t stand the light of day.

Four years later, the Chicago Tribune reported the details of the pension maneuver.

Shocked and doubly shocked to learn of this duplicity, the same legislators who passed the pension measure moved with dispatch to revoke it. New Gov. Pat Quinn, who replaced Blagojevich, was in high moral dudgeon when he described the pension proposal as a “flagrant” abuse of taxpayer dollars that should be “stopped immediately and prevented from ever happening again.”

Piccioli, however, didn’t like the repeal. So he hired a lawyer and filed a lawsuit that argued, per the Illinois Constitution, that once pension benefits are granted, they can never be diminished. Indeed, that’s what the Constitution says.

But Cadigan ruled against Piccioli anyway, saying that the state constitution’s pension clause was trumped, on this issue, by its clause barring passage of special legislation (Article IV, Section 13).

He said the 2007 legislation is “unconstitutional on its face” and “void in its entirety” because it was written for only a handful of people who met the narrow requirement and time deadline.

Piccioli had “not explained why only individuals who met these criteria before the 2007 Act became law are unique with respect to any legitimate legislative purpose, nor … identified any rational reason why the benefits available under the 2007 Act should be limited to such persons, and not available to other individuals who met those criteria after the 2007 Act became law,” Cadagin wrote.

Cadagin’s ruling striking down the 2007 law raises questions.

The first, of course, is whether Piccioli will appeal the decision.

But it also raises an issue about how TRS interpreted the 2012 law repealing the 2007 law.

It recognizes Piccioli and Preckwinkle as being union members and earning pension benefits from 2007 going forward. But if the 2007 law is stricken in its entirety, as Cadigan ruled, they aren’t entitled to any pension benefits because they received them as a consequence of unconstitutional special legislation.

Piccioli retired in December 2012 with a TRS pension of $30,564. Since then, he’s received 3 percent annual increases. (Piccioli also receives a second state pension from his time with Madigan.)

Preckwinkle retired in 2013 with a $37,416 annual pension and has received 3 percent annual increases since then.

Should either be receiving anything?

They are, of course, political insiders, and that makes them a lot different than Joe and Jane Sixpack, whose duty is to pay taxes and shut up. In fact, being insiders makes Piccioli and Preckwinkle special, although in this rare case, just a little too special for their financial good.

Opinions Editor Jim Dey can be reached at jdey@news-gazette.com or 217-351-5369.

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