Jim Dey: Single-day substitute faces choice with pension appeal

Jim Dey: Single-day substitute faces choice with pension appeal

A former teachers' union employee who sought a gold-plated teachers' pension on the basis of working one day as a substitute teacher has a decision to make.

Will he or won't he challenge a trial judge's decision that bars him from buying pension credits from his employment in a private-sector union before he worked his day as a substitute teacher in Springfield and joined the state's Teachers Retirement System?

Springfield lawyer Carl Draper said his client, David Piccioli, a former lobbyist for the teachers' union, is considering whether he'll accept Sangamon County Circuit Judge Ryan Cadigan's ruling.

If Piccioli does decide to challenge it, Draper said, he has until Aug. 23 to ask the judge to reconsider his ruling or file an appeal with the Illinois Supreme Court.

Piccioli has the option of asking for immediate high court review because Cadigan struck down the legislation allowing Piccioli's bonanza on the grounds that it is unconstitutional special legislation barred by the Illinois Constitution.

"It's a decision for Mr. Piccioli. ... It's a significant issue for him," said Draper, who argued that once pension benefits are granted, they can't be taken away.

Representatives of both the Teachers Retirement System and the Illinois Attorney General's Office both declined to comment publicly on the appeal question.

"As long as there is a possibility of an appeal, I'm not going to comment on it," TRS spokesman Dave Urbanek said.

Annie Thompson, a spokeswoman for Attorney General Lisa Madigan, also declined to comment on the appeal issue, although her office clarified the issue that could be the subject of the appeal.

Ironically, Madigan's father, Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan, played a key role in passing the disputed legislation. One of the top members of his leadership team, former state Rep. Gary Hannig, D-Litchfield, introduced an amendment to state pension law that was drafted by the politically powerful Illinois Federation of Teachers.

The legislation was payback for the IFT's role in helping Democrats, including the now-imprisoned former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, in the 2006 elections.

The bill allowed 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 union employment before becoming TRS members.

The only condition was that the union members had to meet legal requirements before Blagojevich signed the legislation Feb. 27, 2007.

Piccioli worked one day in January 2007 and signed up for TRS benefits. He also bought back credits for his previous IFT employment. That's what Cadigan struck down.

Piccioli's current TRS benefits — the ones for his post-2007 employment — are not affected by the litigation, even though Cadigan ruled the 2007 legislation unconstitutional in its entirety.

That's because another Illinois law also allows union employees like Piccioli to join the TRS.

Indeed, many private-sector employers have been legally authorized by legislation to participate in the state's public-employee pension programs, a perk they frequently take since the benefits are lavish compared with private-sector pension programs.

OpenTheBooks.com reports that Piccioli received TRS benefits that paid $2,702 per month (about $32,000 a year) for 2016. He joined TRS in 2007 and retired in December 2012. The organization said state records show Piccioli made total pension contributions to TRS of $82,922 and has total creditable earnings of $921,363.

Prior to working for the union, Piccioli was a member of Madigan's House Democratic staff. As a consequence, he's collecting two public pensions, one from TRS and another from the State Employees Retirement system. The second pension pays $2,653 a month (about $32,000 per year).

If he succeeds in the retroactive-credit issue, Piccioli stands to collect far more than he currently does from TRS.

Former Gov. Pat Quinn and state legislators cried foul when news broke of Piccioli's pension deal in 2012. Declaring themselves scandalized, they passed new legislation that repealed the 2007 legislation, but only apparently the part involving the retroactive credits.

The attorney general's office indicated that under the current law, an IFT employee like Piccioli can still become a substitute teacher, teach briefly, then join TRS and get TRS credit for all the subsequent years he works for IFT.

That reality demonstrates that even when legislators professed to be scandalized by special deals for insiders and promised to fix them, the fix still remains in for the favored few.

Who's got clout and why

He who pays the piper calls the tune.

In Illinois, that means Cook County and the heavily populated collar counties dominate the political discussion. It's simply a numbers game.

A lot of downstaters — meaning the rest of Illinois — resent that for perfectly understandable reasons.

They have little to no clout to speak of in terms of state government because Cook and the collar counties have the numbers.

Look, for example, at how many downstaters are in positions of great influence in state government compared with Cook and the collars. The only downstaters are Democratic state Treasurer Mike Frerichs and state Sen. Bill Brady of Bloomington, the recently named leader of the Republican minority in the Illinois Senate.

All other statewide officials are from the Chicago area. It's the same situation in the Legislature.

Those leaders look out for their constituents, and with the exception of the governor, their constituents aren't downstaters.

So what, say the powers that be, and they have a point. We pay the most in taxes, and we're entitled to a heapin' helpin' of what tax dollars buy.

A recent report issued by the Illinois Department of Revenue for the 2015 tax year lends substance to that claim. The report shows how many state income-tax returns were filed in each of the state's 102 counties as well as how much in income taxes each county paid.

Cook County residents led the way by a country mile, filing 2.3 million individual tax returns and paying a total of $5.8 billion in taxes. DuPage County residents came in second, filing 450,000 returns revealing $1.4 billion in income-tax payments, and Lake County was third with 319,000 returns for $1.2 billion in income-tax payments.

Will County had 306,000 tax filers generating nearly $696 million in income-tax revenue; Kane County, 227,000 returns with $523 million in payments; and McHenry County, 146,000 returns with $345 million.

Now consider downstate counties by comparison.

Champaign County has 81,000 state income-tax filers who paid $152 million; Vermilion County, 31,000 filers who paid $40 million; and Macon County, 45,000 filers who paid $74 million.

Some of the bigger downstate counties were St. Louis-area locales like Madison (115,000 filers who paid $206 million) and St. Clair (105,000 filers who paid $179 million).

The counties in deep southern Illinois made Champaign County look heavily urbanized.

Whiteside County (26,000 filers and $38 million in revenue), Alexander County (2,105 filers and $2 million) and Jackson County (21,000 filers and $29 million) were barely blips on the screen.

Given those disparities in numbers and dollars, is it any wonder who rules the Illinois roost?

Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached by email at jdey@news-gazette.com or by phone at 217-351-5369.