Illinois is facing a massive pension problem with an estimated $96 billion unfunded liability for its public workers. The legislature has been unable to reach a plan to overhaul the pension system. So Governor Pat Quinn has unveiled a marketing strategy hoping to start a grassroots discussion on pension reform. The effort includes a video and a mascot, Squeezy the Pension Python. Robert Siegel and Audie Cornish tell us the snake is getting a mixed receptions from the people of Illinois.
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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
I'm Robert Siegel. And now, the story of Squeezy the Pension Python.
CORNISH: Bear with us a minute here.
SIEGEL: That's right. Illinois is facing a massive pension crunch - a $96 billion crunch - and state lawmakers have failed to fix the problem.
CORNISH: So now, Democratic Governor Pat Quinn has announced his own grassroots strategy to win public support for pension reform. Here's Rick Pearson, political writer for the Chicago Tribune.
RICK PEARSON: He unveiled his marketing plan, which basically was a three-minute, 44-second video that also included a mascot, Squeezy the Pension Python.
SIEGEL: The video relates a history of pensions and how it says Illinois found itself in its current predicament - all with the help of an orange, cartoon snake wrapping its tail around the statehouse, policemen, hospitals. Here's a bit of the video's narration. Notice the Squeezy sound effects.
(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO, "THE PENSION SQUEEZE")
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: The problem is the squeeze. You see, as government employers try to keep up payments into the pension fund, they have to slash other services that we need, like schools, for example.
CORNISH: Rick Pearson with the Tribune says the governor's office is happy with Squeezy's reception, but not everyone is on board.
PEARSON: It's been labeled from everything as juvenile to someone who suggested that this is a programmed geared to 2-year-olds. And who knew that Illinois' solution to the nation's most underfunded pension crisis would be Squeezy the Pension Python, the mascot.
SIEGEL: Squeezy does have some defenders. Among them, Whet Moser of Chicago magazine.
WHET MOSER: It is memorable. And the fact that it's ludicrous and the fact that should they makes it memorable, then, you know, it's hopefully pushing people towards some of the real issues about Illinois pensions that we haven't been talking about as much.
CORNISH: Moser says the snake is also an effective metaphor for a complicated issue. But even, he admits, Squeezy is too cute. Instead, he says the snake should have been called something like Sufficatey the Pension-Underfunding Coral Snake.
SIEGEL: One final note: Squeezy, of course, has a Twitter account, and he posted this yesterday: People have asked, why an orange python? The answer: It ain't Squeezy being green. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.