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Time for pension reform 2.0

Alternatives needed fast, but options appear limited

Published: Friday, July 11, 2014 1:15 a.m. CDT
"Squeezy the Pension Python," introduced in 2012 by Gov. Pat Quinn's office as a mascot for the Illinois public employee pension crisis, still has a strong grip on the State Capitol after an adverse ruling by the Illinois Supreme Court.

The Illinois Supreme Court on Thursday [July 3] said loudly, clearly, and ominously that public employee pension benefits in the state cannot be cut.

That can mean only one thing: State and local lawmakers had better get working on a Plan B. Illinois needs alternatives to the state pension-reform law passed in December and to the Chicago pension-reform law passed in May. The options are limited – it may come down to a constitutional amendment – but the state’s best minds better get cracking.

It isn’t an exaggeration, even in the slightest, to say Illinois’ future depends on it.

Thursday’s 6-1 ruling did not cover the state bill, which cuts benefits for state and university employees, legislators and teachers outside Chicago, nor did it affect the Chicago bill, which impacts pensions for municipal workers and laborers.

In this case, the justices ruled that subsidized health care for retired state employees is protected under the Illinois Constitution and can’t be cut, just like pension benefits.

There is now but one key question: Does a viable pension reform alternative exist? A bill pushed by Senate President John Cullerton, considered an alternative by many, is now almost certainly off the table. That bill gave workers a choice between full pension benefits or subsidized health care – choose pension benefits and health care would be cut. Given Thursday’s ruling, that now seems highly dubious.

One possibility would be to amend the constitution to modify the pension protection clause – not eliminating it but weakening it some. However, this is a lengthy process and may still not protect the state legally if it reduces benefits already promised.

The answers are elusive and the challenges tremendous, but Illinois has come too far to give in now. Over the last 5 years, the state has made significant strides in cleaning up its fiscal house. And though imperfect, the pension-reform bill builds on that by opening a path to genuine solvency.

In Chicago, the picture is even more bleak, with city pensions in even worse shape than the state’s. Without cost-cutting, the pension funds could easily go belly up even as city residents get hit with dramatic increases in taxes and service cuts.

A final note: For all those outraged with the Supreme Court justices, save your fire. Their job is to interpret the law and the constitution. Target your outrage at lawmakers, and to a lesser degree union leaders, who for years promised benefits that Illinois couldn’t afford and also failed miserably to make too-low required annual payments.

Channel that outrage where it can do some good: Coming up with a Plan B.

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