Illinois voters will have the chance to amend the state Constitution this fall. A question's on the ballot asking voters if they want to make it harder to enhance government employees' retirement benefits, including city and state workers, university employees, and teachers. Backers argue it'll help the state from piling more debt onto Illinois' already-underfunded pensions. But there's no shortage of critics urging people to vote "no," and a lawsuit trying to get the question tossed completely. IPR's Amanda Vinicky has more:
The pension question will be first on your ballot. Even before you cast a vote for Barack Obama or Mitt Romney, you'll be asked to vote "yes" or "no" on the constitutional amendment. Today, it takes a simple majority of legislators to increase retirement benefits. If the amendment's approved, three-fifths of the General Assembly has to be on board. Sounds simple enough. And when legislators voted to put the question on the ballot, it passed overwhelmingly and with little debate. It took all of three minutes and 44 seconds for it to get through the Senate:
FLOOR NAT Sen. Sullivan: "ratified."
When House Speaker Mike Madigan introduced the plan, he described it as "tough medicine" Illinois needs to swallow.
"It's intended to be tough medicine because review of actions of the legislature and governors over the last several years, take your pick on the number of years, say 5 years, 10 years, 20 years, 30 years, 40 years, take your pick. but the record would say we need this medicine."
But I was hard-pressed to find an organization that backs it. Even the Illinois Policy Institute, a conservative group clamoring for the state to cut government employees' pensions, is pretty much ambivalent.
"As an individual voter I will be voting no."
The Institute's Kristina Rasmussen says it doesn't go far enough.
"Constitutional amendment 49 is a classic case of fake reform. It isn't pension reform, and the amendment passes, it's not going to erase the state's hundreds of billions of dollars in pension debt. And if it had passed ten years ago it still would have done nothing to stop pension abuses that are bankrupting the system."
Illinois DOES have massive pension debt, it owes 83 billion dollars it doesn't have in the bank. That's in part because of poor investment returns that coincided with the economic downfall, but mostly because lawmakers for years didn't pay in the state's required share to the pension funds.
Increasing pension benefits isn't really the problem, at least according to a report by the legislature's bipartisan government forecasting commission. But there have been a string high-profile cases drawing attention to what are known as pension "sweeteners." Embarrassing reports detail the General Assembly's bad habit of doing lobbyists, retired lawmakers, and others with political connections a favor by passing laws to "sweeten," or increase their pension payouts, for no additional work. Critics say the proposed amendment is a diversion.
"Politicians hide behind these kind of gimmicks. They put something on the ballot. Then people think the problem's fixed. The problem isn't fixed. We still have a pension problem in Illinois, we still have to address it."
Senator Mike Jacobs, a Democrat from the Quad Cities, is one of only two legislators who voted against it. Supporters say they used a constitutional amendment so it's harder to tamper with should future legislators try to get around it. But Jacobs says it's unnecessary, that passing an ordinary law would suffice. It's a concern shared by Illinois Federation of Teachers President Dan Montgomery.
"Of course, public employee unions are fighting it for the obvious reason that it'll make it harder for their members to get better benefits."
But Montgomery also says the amendment is irresponsible. He says it's going to affect not just state employees and teachers, but also police, fire fighters and city workers. That's because if it passes, Illinois' nearly 7 thousand local governmental bodies will also need to reach a super-majority.
"... to pass just about any contract they're ever going to sign. That's what in other places is called the tyranny of the minority."
That's also why the League of Women Voters is campaigning against it, becaues they say it takes power away from the majority. But what really has state workers fired up is an argument made by John Kindt, a business professor at the University of Illinois. Employees are circulating emails with warnings to "vote no!" based on Kindt's belief that the last sentence of the amendment could strip a provision already in the constitution that protects retirement benefits.
"The fact that this is a 700 word avalanche, in a constitutional amendment that is SO dramatic and makes such important changes in the Illinois constitution should really cause people to pause and say 'what is Springfield doing here.'? If you trust Springfield, vote for this. If you don't trust what's going on in Springfield, you should consider voting no."
There are plenty of those who dismiss that theory. Including Steve Brown, the spokesman for House Speaker Mike Madigan, who sponsored the amendment. He says anyone who's accepting that legal interpretation 'has a fool for a lawyer'. Even so, John Marshall law professor Anne Lousin, who was a research assistant for the drafting of Illinios' constitution in 1970, calls it a catastrophe.
"Actually, I gave it an F."
She says the wording is lousy. Its effects ambiguous. And she says if it passes, Illinois will be stuck with it pretty much forever. It would take another constitutional amendment to get rid of it.
"They're really coming up with a very complex amendment that will do nothing except give us a lot of litigation."
Already, that's started. John Bambenek, a Republican from Champaign who's running for the state Senate, and ten other Illinois voters have filed a lawsuit to revoke the amendment. Bambenek says the 700 word amendment is indecipherable, the instructions printed on the ballot too confusing.
"That lack of clarity, that confusing, means voters are not making an informed choice because of what's on the ballot in front of them. And case law is pretty clear in those circumstances you really can't count that vote, especially for something as important as an amendment to the state constitution."
Given that the lawsuit was filed just last week in Champaign County Circuit Court, it's unlikely he'll succeed in getting the question tossed, possibly ever, but at least before the election. The effect if it DOES pass and become part of the constitution is anybody's guess at this point. As Lawrence Msall of the non-partisan Civic Federation notes, that makes it difficult to predict its impact.
"Most of the issues surrounding the constitution and the constitutional amendment won't have final interpretation until they're reviewed by the Supreme Court."
Msall says he's going to vote "yes." He says it won't reduce Illinois' pension debt, but it won't hurt the cause either.
"It MAY provide greater attention to the Illinois General Assembly members when they're considering pension changes because of the three-fifths majority."
He says anything that puts greater attention on pensions is a step in the right direction.
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