Voters to decide on pension amendment

Unions, conservative group oppose move

STERLING – If voters approve a state constitutional amendment, government bodies at all levels will have a higher hurdle to sweeten the pensions of government workers.

But no one is saying it’s a solution to the state’s pension crisis. The state pensions’ unfunded liability is $83 billion.

Voters will decide on Amendment 49 in Tuesday’s election.

The amendment would require a three-fifths majority of the Illinois House and Senate to pass any increase to workers’ current pensions.

The three-fifths requirement also would apply to local governing bodies such as city councils and school boards.

Now, such changes need only a simple majority.

The House passed the amendment unanimously, with only two senators, including Mike Jacobs, D-East Moline, voting against it.

Rep. Jerry Mitchell, R-Sterling, who is retiring, said the amendment would stop a partisan majority from “ramrodding” pension bills through the General Assembly. Bills with bipartisan support, he said, are preferable.

“You see what happened with Obamacare. There were no Republican votes,” Mitchell said. “Because of that, there’s a lot of mistrust with it. I can’t see a downside to voting no” on the amendment.

Despite strong legislative support, the amendment’s opponents range from unions to the conservative-leaning Illinois Policy Institute.

Diana Rickert, a spokeswoman for the institute, said the amendment does nothing to erase the unfunded pension liability. Besides, she said, nearly all pension sweeteners over the years have passed with much more than three-fifths support.

“This is a classic case of do-nothing reform,” Rickert said. “If they [lawmakers] wanted to make this strong reform, they should have included a clause that there be no pension sweeteners until there is no more pension liability.”

AFSCME Council 31, which represents many government workers in Illinois, shares the institute’s opposition, but not its reasoning.

Anders Lindall, an AFSCME spokesman, said the amendment allows politicians at the state level to shift the blame for pension problems to workers.

“They can get away from the responsibility for pension debt they caused,” Lindall said.

For decades, employees contributed to the pension systems as required, but the state often failed to pay its share. Two-thirds of the liability is due to those missed payments, Lindall said, and a third is due to the Wall Street meltdown in 2008.

“We’ve been sounding the alarm on this for decades,” he said.

Lindall said the unions want an ironclad guarantee that the state makes its contributions. It’s akin to the law that employers make their required payments to Social Security for employees.

“With a guarantee, the mess can never happen again,” he said.

The unions say the amendment also could cause more disputes at the local level. Even if union and management reach a deal, a minority of a governing body could block an agreement, the unions say.

On the ballot

This is the explanation of the amendment on Tuesday's ballot:

Upon approval by the voters, the proposed amendment, which takes effect on Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2013, adds a new section to the General Provisions Article of the Illinois Constitution. The new section would require a three-fifths majority vote of each chamber of the General Assembly, or the governing body of a unit of local government, school district, or pension or retirement system, in order to increase a benefit under any public pension or retirement system. At the general election on Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2012, you will be called upon to decide whether the proposed amendment should become part of the Illinois Constitution.

If you believe the Illinois Constitution should be amended to require a three-fifths majority vote in order to increase a benefit under any public pension or retirement system, you should vote “YES” on the question. If you believe the Illinois Constitution should not be amended to require a three-fifths majority vote in order to increase a benefit under any public pension or retirement system, you should vote “NO” on the question. Three-fifths of those voting on the question or a majority of those voting in the election must vote “YES” in order for the amendment to become effective on January 9, 2013.