Chuck Sweeny: Expect Illinois’ treasurer to try for Senate seat

Chuck Sweeny

Illinois Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias stopped by the Rockford Register Star Editorial Board for a chat Wednesday morning. The 32-year-old said he’ll decide in the next month whether he’ll be a candidate for the U.S. Senate in 2010. I strongly suspect the decision will be yes.

He could have some powerful help, too:

“The president is mentor to me, a close friend who inspired me to run for office,” he said. “We haven’t had a conversation about what he’s going to do, but I do think it’s important for Illinois to have a senator who brings integrity back to the process, who has a relationship with the administration, who understands the whole state and who will effectively lead so we can talk about issues like the economy, getting people back to work.”

He also is on friendly terms with Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., with whom he traveled recently to Cyprus to meet with diplomats in an attempt to cool the tension between Turks and Greeks that he said “is about two press releases away from a war between Greece and Turkey.”

Giannoulias said Durbin, who helped convince Barack Obama to run for president, “wants to make sure that we don’t lose this seat in the general election. He wants to find a candidate who’s won statewide, who can travel the state, raise money.”

As other state leaders from Gov. Pat Quinn on down have done, Giannoulias called on appointed Sen. Roland Burris to resign. Most everyone concedes that won’t happen, including Giannoulias.

Giannoulias touted his bill to stop private and public colleges from selling student lists to credit card companies. The measure also would ban the credit card representatives on campus from using low-interest come-ons and free merchandise to drum up business.

“The credit card industry vigorously markets to college students but they work hard to hide their unfair practices that pile on debt,” he said. Ninety-one percent of college students have credit cards, and 4 percent have four or more. The average debt for a graduating senior is $4,000.

He also pitched his bill to combine Illinois’ three public-employee pension boards, which manage five pensions, into one. He says the consolidation of investment functions (benefits would not change) would save $50 million to $80 million a year and give a dramatic boost to the combined system’s investment power.

This is not a new or scary concept. Most of us have heard of CALPERS, the California Public Employees’ Retirement System. Its investment clout is legendary.

Giannoulias’ plan would be called ILPERS. “In 10 years, the savings from consolidation will put $1 billion back into the pension system and it won’t cost one penny,” he said. His bill would include strict ethics and transparency safeguards, protecting ILPERS from the influence of corrupt, pay-to-play politicians.

Giannoulias is receiving widespread support for his plan, but he conceded the Teachers Retirement System is fighting it.

His reform is the right thing to do, but it cannot address the pensions’ underfunding, which is the worst in the nation. Giannoulias estimates the pensions’ underfunding at $60 billion to $70 billion.

Only the Legislature and Quinn can do something about this ticking time bomb, which eventually will consume all the revenues of state government if legislation isn’t passed to pay down the debt and replace the defined benefits pensions with defined contribution pensions for new employees.

Chuck Sweeny can be reached at (815) 987-1366