Voice of The Southern: Intentions are good, but at too much risk

Voice of The Southern: Intentions are good, but at too much risk

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It used to be the hypothetical 900-pound gorilla in the corner of the room. You know, the one everyone noticed but never mentioned.

But today’s version of the Illinois public employees’ pension shortfall is anything but under the radar. It’s mentioned almost daily in the state’s newspapers and websites, which can only be seen as a mark of progress in a state accustomed to elected officials kicking the can down the road.

Gov. Pat Quinn wisely considers the pension liability our state’s biggest problem, which is hard to dispute for a debt of $100 billion that grows by $17 million each passing day. It casts a cloud of uncertainty over the state, which hurts economic development and limits the state’s effectiveness in attracting and retaining businesses.

The resulting downgrade of the state’s bond rating makes borrowing more difficult, as well as significantly more expensive.

If those fiscal woes don’t equal a crisis, we don’t know what does. Senate President John Cullerton, however, isn’t convinced the pension shortfall is a crisis. Cullerton conceded it must be fixed in recent news reports, but said it doesn’t equal bankruptcy for the state. Cullerton said the pension reform issue was being pushed by business-backed groups seeking lower income taxes at the ex-pense of state workers retirement benefits.

We respect Quinn and Cullerton. The Chicago Democrats are seasoned elected officials, with years of real-world experience in addition to law degrees. But we think Quinn has a better grasp on the depth and breadth of the pension debt.

As governor, we expect Quinn to hold our lawmakers’ feet to the fire in the effort to get a pension reform plan approved by the legislature. But it should not come at the expense of the state’s best interests.

We’re concerned the governor’s good intentions might have unintended consequences in the delicate effort of keeping top-level jobs of Archer Daniels Midland in Illinois. We’d prefer to see the 100 headquarters-level jobs of ADM stay in Decatur, its hometown for 44 years and the source of agribusiness employment for more than 4,000 people in central Illinois.

But we also understand ADM should be free to operate in the manner that is best for their business. Good business sense is behind the plan to locate the company headquarters in a major city. ADM wants to ensure its top executives and potential clients have ready access to international airports. The firm also plans to add a technology center to the new headquarters site, adding about 100 workers.

As might be expected, there is a growing list of suitor cities for the ADM headquarters. St. Louis is making a pitch, Minneapolis, too. Both are fine cities, but the best possible location for the ADM headquarters move is Chicago. That effort is being aided by a legislative panel considering a package of tax breaks for Archer Daniels Midland to stay in Illinois.

But there might be trouble from Quinn. As we reported Wednesday, Quinn earlier this month said he would oppose tax incentives for ADM to keep its world headquarters in Illinois unless the House and Senate sign off on a plan to overhaul the state’s massively underfunded pension systems.

Yikes! This isn’t the right time or the right issue to use as leverage in getting a pension reform agreement. It’s too important to keep the ADM headquarters in Illinois, even in distant Chicago, to take such a risk. We need all the jobs we can get, including 100 new spots in a technology center and all the construction work in building the new headquarters.

We’re with you 100 percent on pension reform, governor, but hope you will allow the ADM incentives legislation to proceed without the threat of a gubernatorial veto.

Feedback: We want to hear what you have to say. Type your thoughts about our editorials by clicking on the “discussion” tab in the online version of this opinion at www.thesouthern.com/news/opinion/ If you want to see your comments in the newspaper, e-mail them directly to gary.metro@thesouthern.com along with your name, address and telephone number.

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