We have all heard the story forewarning us of the metaphorical wolf in sheep’s clothing. The parable reminds us that true character is revealed through actions, not words. In the fight to protect pensions, staying alert to threats against the retirement security of public employees is imperative, and it is not always obvious who is on our side and who is working against us.

Today, we will dive into an emerging group called Secure Illinois Retirements (SIR), whose involvement in public sector pensions is raising eyebrows among pension advocates nationwide. SIR (which is not to be confused with Illinois Secure Choice–a state-run initiative to provide retirement savings options to private sector workers in Illinois whose employers do not offer employer-sponsored retirement plans) touts itself as an “organization whose mission is to bring public sector employees, elected officials, legislators, unions, and members of our communities to the table to encourage a discussion about sustainable solutions for the pension system.” But we’ve done some investigating, and Secure Illinois Retirements is waving some serious red flags. 

SIR first appeared on our radar earlier this year when we stumbled on their online education initiative, Illinois Retirement U. We looked into who the humans are behind the website. There is little evidence that their board, which their website says consists of “public sector workers and union members from across Illinois,” has had any involvement with elected union officials, and seems to have circumvented Illinois public union leadership. Last week, SIR put out a press release announcing their new Executive Director, Katie Dunne. Dunne previously worked for the Cook County Sheriff’s Office and is the executive director of an inconclusive organization called Chicago77.

Ira S. Weiss also leads SIR as its principal officer. Weiss is a venture capitalist and Professor of Accounting and Entrepreneurship at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, and a partner at Hyde Park Venture Partners. Their website notes that Weiss has been at the firm since 2011, “following a decade as a successful angel investor.” 

But why would an angel investor and venture capitalist involve himself with policies surrounding public employee pensions?

Recently, Girard Miller penned a piece for Governing calling on midsize local government pension funds, like those SIR is looking to influence, to start innovation funds, effectively handing angel investors like Weiss billions of dollars in retiree pension funds to gamble with. It’s a proposal that would severely endanger the retirement security of millions of public employees. 

But it’s not the backgrounds of SIR’s leadership that we’re most concerned about. It’s their heavy reliance on research from the anti-pension group Equable Institute, the underhanded way they sneak anti-pension rhetoric into their retirement benefits education program, and the way they pose as a labor-backed, worker-oriented coalition, much like the official state coalitions associated with NPPC. Remember, Equable is no friend of pensions and perpetuates a destructive narrative focused on unfunded liabilities and inflated amortization costs. 

We have seen this playbook before. These groups often disguise concern over funding as a reason to dismantle public pension systems and will use language that sounds benign and constructive but has a double meaning. For instance, when Dunne says that SIR is “committed to correcting the record, fostering productive dialogue, and identifying sustainable solutions to ensure a fully funded pension system,” it paves the way for harmful reforms and changes that will erode retirement security for public employees. Creating sustainable solutions to fully fund the pension systems in Illinois is a noble-sounding goal–but not when the Equable Institute and angel investors are involved, and not when they exclude the democratically chosen labor leaders who represent the workers whose retirement depends on these pension funds. 

Recently, NPPC staff took the web-based Illinois Retirement U course to see what kind of information SIR is providing to public employees. What the course does well is that it allows for an accurate breakdown of pension terms and system functions, identifying the connection between public employment and social security, detailing vesting periods, and explaining how to calculate future benefits. This same information is available from pension systems and through employee groups. But where the good information ends and the counter-organizing begins is a muddy line hidden in warnings like, “pensions are definitely working for some public employees, but not all state and local workers,” and “only 10% of new Illinois public workers are expected to work the total number of years that are needed to earn a full pension they can comfortably retire on.” The suggestion of plan choice creeps into the narrative, giving the false impression that individual retirement accounts for workers are a more secure retirement option than the proven formula of risk-pooled, defined-benefit pensions. That is where the wolf starts to shed the sheep costume. 

Things continue downhill once they move into the chapter on unfunded liabilities. Using metrics directly from the anti-pension Equable Institute to back up its messaging, SIR uses phrasing to scare readers into thinking that their pension funds are on the brink of collapse and that the possibility of the state failing to deliver their promised pensions is eminent.

These lies about unfunded liabilities are not a new tactic–we’ve been talking about the unfunded liability myth for a long time. Still, anti-pension organizations like Equable repeatedly attempt to scare public employees into thinking that their defined-benefit pensions are unreliable, unattainable, and insecure. By working without the cooperation of labor leaders and targeting this information directly to rank-and-file public servants with worker-oriented language, they attempt to coerce workers into voting against themselves; subsequently lining the pockets of wealthy Wall Street investors and venture capitalists–the people who benefit most from the closure of a public pension plan. 

Earlier this year, involvement from anti-pension groups played an instrumental role in the closure of the North Dakota Public Employees Retirement System pension plan. House Bill 1040 moved all new North Dakota public employees into a 401(k)-style defined contribution retirement plan. The pension system closure came with a $5 billion anticipated price tag, making it the most expensive bill in state history. Despite the cost, lawmakers took the bait when the Reason Foundation and TIAA entered the scene to push the same “sky is falling” narrative about unfunded liabilities. It’s worth noting that Equable’s current Executive Director, Anthony Randazzo, came from the Reason Foundation. Randazzo promoted harmful reform policies in states from coast to coast as part of the Pension Integrity Project. 

With weekly reports coming from The Center Square, a conservative-leaning, Koch brothers-related news source based out of Chicago, perpetuating inflammatory and sensationalized statistics like, Report shows Illinois has worst-funded pension system and Record Illinois spending, nearly double since 2018, is unsustainable, senator says, we can expect to see future threats to the public pension systems in Illinois. And now that Secure Illinois Retirements has officially announced its Executive Director, we anticipate that the anti-pension groups will find in SIR another mouthpiece for spreading their misinformation.

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