Senate President Don Harmon’s foolish pitch to Washington can only hurt Illinois

Harmon and Illinois Senate Democrats have asked for $10 billion in federal COVID-19 recovery funds to bail out state pensions — a problem not even remotely related to COVID-19. This makes Illinois stand out in the most selfish of ways.

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State Sen. Don Harmon (pictured on March 27, 2017) hopes the bill can “limit the problem” of opioid abuse in the state. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Illinois Senate President Don Harmon, D-Oak Park.

Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

For weeks now, this editorial page has beat the drum for at least one more big federal stimulus package to help all states — red ones and blue ones — recover from the coronavirus pandemic.

It’s a no-brainer. The economy of every state, including Illinois, has been devastated by a virus that has rocked the world. Congress and President Donald Trump must step up with more money.

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That said, we’re a newspaper. We’re not the political leaders who have to sit down at the negotiating table and hammer out the details, including whether states hardest hit by COVID-19 should get more financial aid than other states. Our role has been to encourage Democrats and Republicans to work together to do what’s best, understanding that the politics are delicate and difficult.

Apparently, the president of the Illinois Senate, Don Harmon — who has been in that job all of three months — doesn’t quite get that. Last week, he made a politically deaf, even foolish, pitch to Washington that can only hurt our state’s chances of securing additional COVID-19 relief funds.

In a letter to the members of Congress from Illinois, Harmon, D-Oak Park, outlined a request for another $41 billion in COVID-19-related stimulus aid for the state. Harmon and his fellow state Senate Democrats said they want more aid to be sent directly to cities and towns, which makes sense. They want more money for hospitals, which would be good. And they want more money to help the unemployed, which we also agree is necessary.

But here’s the foolish part. Harmon has proposed that about a quarter of the new money for Illinois, $10 billion, be used to bail out our state government’s cash-strapped retirement systems — a problem not even remotely related to COVID-19.

How Harmon thought to justify this “ask” — let alone put it in writing to be picked up in publications including the New York Times, Forbes and our own Sun-Times — is beyond us.

The real root of the pension problem

Illinois’ $138 billion unfunded pension liability has been years — make that decades — in the making. Springfield lawmakers since before the Beatles have been expanding employee retirement benefits without putting aside enough money to pay for them.

At best, Harmon’s pension ask is politically clueless.

At worst, it will serve to explode efforts at bipartisanship in Washington as our nation struggles to recover from the pandemic. You can almost see congressional Republicans waving Harmon’s letter in the air and saying: “See, we told you. Blue states like Illinois are just being greedy. They want us to bail them out of problems of their own making, created over decades. Why should we help them?”

For his part, Harmon tried to justify the request by pointing out that legislators in Springfield have begun making the full payments into state pension systems that are required by a new state law — but that this is going to be harder to do now.

“In a normal year the size of those payments crowds out funding for services and programs,” Harmon wrote. “Clearly this will not be a normal year and that crowding out effect will be exacerbated by significant revenue losses.”

Yes, Sen. Harmon, this is true. But the pension problem is still one of the state’s own making.

The Illinois Republican Party on Saturday seized upon this on Twitter, accusing Democrats of “brazenly using a global pandemic as an excuse to ask the [federal government] to bail them out of the fiscal disaster they manufactured.” For the record, both state Democrats and Republicans cast plenty of votes that put us in this pension mess over the years, but the state GOP’s point is essentially the same as ours.

Pritzker’s response

Asked about this on Saturday, Gov. J.B. Pritzker astutely distanced himself from Harmon’s requests, saying he “was not aware of the content of the letter” before it was sent.

“It’s different than what I have been talking to the federal representatives about,” Pritzker said. “I really believe the states need to have some unencumbered dollars that come in that will help us with the coming year’s budget — every state has this problem.”

The governor is right.

Money from the first federal stimulus package, the $2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, came with lots of restrictions. States need more flexibility to spend the money where it’s needed most.

Congress also needs to provide more money to help small businesses — those under 500 employees — survive the pandemic. More than $345 billion in aid through the CARES Act’s Paycheck Protection Program for these companies ran dry in less than two weeks.

There’s talk of replenishing the program, but the White House, Republicans and Democrats have yet to come to terms.

As we said, the politics of all this are delicate and difficult. If another stimulus deal is to get done, congressional leaders must respond to the needs of all 50 states. But Harmon, with his ill-considered letter, has made Illinois stand out in the most selfish of ways.

Harmon has been in Springfield a long time, but he’s brand new to the job of Senate president. And now he’s made the kind of rookie mistake that comes back to bite, this time to the detriment of all of us.

Leadership is about thinking things through. Don Harmon will have to do better than this.

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