URBANA – The hottest ticket in town Monday night was a gathering of more than 200 sometimes-testy citizens, most of them seniors, grilling U.S. Rep. Tim Johnson on privatizing Social Security.
The Urbana Republican turned out to disagree with the president on the private accounts.
"Private accounts have virtually nothing to do with the underlying security of the Social Security system," Johnson said, vowing to make a priority of strengthening the system. "I'm not going to countenance anything that would damage Social Security."
He said a variety of compromise measures, including changing exemptions, raising retirement ages and improving the efficiency of the system, may be enough to save Social Security.
Many of the attendees were on hand to ask Johnson how he stood on a House bill, the McCrery-Shaw "GROW (Growing Real Ownership for Workers) Act," which would move money within the system to create private accounts. The legislation, HR 3304, is named for two chief sponsors, Jim McCrery, R-La., and E. Clay Shaw Jr., R-Fla. It was introduced in mid-July and referred to the House Ways and Means Committee. No members of the Illinois delegation have signed on as co-sponsors, according to the Library of Congress.
There were about 120 chairs in the hall at the Urbana Civic Center, and well over 200 people showed up, prompting a fire marshal to come by.
The occupancy rate is 150, said division chief Mick Humer, the first time he could remember such concerns at the civic center. Humer said the temperature in the room rose enough that he wanted to make sure no one was having health problems.
It was the largest town hall meeting for Johnson in the recent memory of his staff, said spokesman Phil Bloomer, who attributed the large crowd to concerns about Social Security.
Before the town hall, Claudia Lennhoff, director of Champaign County Health Care Consumers; Kevin Sanderfur, president of AFL-CIO of Champaign County; and Neva Summers, a self-described lifelong Republican and Johnson supporter, held a press conference denouncing the McCrery-Shaw bill, arguing that privatization would increase the national debt, cut guaranteed benefits and makes Social Security less solvent.
Johnson addressed several retirement and benefits issues, calling cuts in Social Security benefits to those who have government pensions, such as teachers, a "bipartisan mistake" of the Reagan/Carter era that he would endeavor to correct.
He said he supports Amtrak and did not believe it needs to be profit-based, though it needs to be efficient.
He denounced the concept of a national identification card as reminiscent of "Big Brother."