10/3/2012 by Diane Cohen, General Counsel, Liberty Justice Center
When Illinoisans go to the polls on November 6, they will vote on a proposed constitutional amendment to the Illinois Constitution that would require a 3/5 supermajority vote by the General Assembly on any bill increasing pension or retirement system benefits for government employees and officials. The amendment would also require a 3/5 voting requirement for local governments and school districts seeking to increase employee pensions or annuities through such things as bonuses, compensated time off or other non-salary forms of compensation. House Joint Resolution 49 was referred to the ballot pursuant to the Illinois Constitution’s amendment legislative-referral process, after near-unanimous approval by the General Assembly.
While supporters claim this measure is aimed at reforming the state’s pension system, which is currently more than $200 billion in debt and growing, if enacted, the amendment in reality would do nothing to solve, let alone address our state’s pension crisis.
History shows that a supermajority voting requirement would have made virtually no difference in preventing the pension benefit increases and sweeteners approved by the legislature during recent decades. Nor would it have prevented the pension crisis the state now faces. Such measures have passed by overwhelming margins in both houses of the legislature, far surpassing the supermajority mark (which is 71 votes in the House and 36 in the Senate).
The conundrum voters face is that to support the amendment is to further the fallacy that it actually means something, while to oppose it may send the wrong message to state and local decision makers who are already spending beyond the taxpayers’ means, who knowingly passed this “do nothing” amendment so they could say they did something toward pension reform.
Opponents of the bill claim this takes away the will of the simple majority from raising pension and retirement benefits in the course of such matters as labor disputes. The problem is that neither state legislators nor local government leaders should be permitted to ante up such increases if it means plunging the taxpayers into further debt.
There is a better way. The legislature should have proposed real change but did not. Now the citizens of Illinois should demand it.
Here’s what real reform would look like: Article XIII, Section 5 of the Illinois Constitution expressly deems membership in any state or local pension or retirement system an enforceable contractual relationship, and thus prohibits the diminishment or impairment of benefits vested in such systems. But the constitution fails to prohibit state and local governments from contracting away more than what taxpayers can afford. Thus, if the General Assembly was truly interested in advancing pension reform, it would have referred a constitutional amendment that prohibits pension and retirement system benefit increases unless and until they are fully funded (using risk-free discount rates).
This is the face of real reform, not the fake “do nothing” reform HJRCA 49 offers.