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Pension Foes Allied Against Constitutional Amendment

Pension-related amendment to state constitution on Nov. 6 ballot is confusing, catastrophic and fake reform, say foes and legal experts. What you need to know before you vote.

By Jayette Bolinski, Illinois Watchdog

SPRINGFIELD — Opposition to a proposed pension-related constitutional amendment that will go before Illinois voters Nov. 6 is creating strange bedfellows — from public employee unions to good-government groups that agree the question is not worthy of a change to the state’s constitution and does nothing to address the pension crisis.

 Groups opposed to the amendment are numerous and come from all walks of life. It’s no surprise that public-employee unions are opposed to the amendment, which requires a three-fifths majority vote before any public body can approve a pension benefit increase.

Good-government groups, such as the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability and the Illinois Policy Institute, also are against it. So are Protestants for the Common Good, the state’s League of Women Voters and the Illinois Green Party.

The groups usually don’t see eye-to-eye on how to achieve pension reform. But Constitutional Amendment 49 has turned adversaries into allies, each with an eye on a common goal – defeating the amendment.

“I wish I could say that it was because of shared principles that such diverse groups are coming together to oppose this,” Diane Cohen of the Chicago-based Liberty Justice Center said of the unexpected alliances. “We certainly just view this as fake reform. It does nothing to address the pension crisis in the state. But worse than that, it sort of pulls the wool over the voters’ eyes to try to pretend that the legislators are actually doing something in the face of this crisis.”

Pension Shortfall of $85 Billion to $200 Billion

Illinois has a pension-funding shortfall of at least $85 billion. New reporting requirements by investment groups put the liability in the neighborhood of $200 billion.

In April, the Illinois House unanimously approved a measure put forth by Speaker Michael Madigan, a Democrat, that would ask voters if approval of public-pension boosts in Illinois should require a supermajority vote of three-fifths (60 percent) instead of a simple majority vote. Madigan called it “tough medicine” for a state deep in debt.

The Illinois Senate also approved the measure, with only two lawmakers there voting against it.

Since then, critics have called the proposal “catastrophic,” “do-nothing,” “misguided,” “incomprehensible” and “diabolical and feckless.”

“The only people we’ve seen pushing this so far are the politicians themselves,” said Anders Lindall, spokesman for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 31, which represents thousands of state workers. “It really validates our view that this is a politician-protection amendment. This is not a pension amendment. It should be defeated.”

Groups that support the amendment are difficult to find.  Others have found numerous reasons to object.

For example, the language is too long and complicated for average voters to understand, some say. The proposed Illinois constitutional amendment is more than 700 words — longer than the preamble to the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Meanwhile, the diluted explanation of the proposed amendment that voters will find on the Nov. 6 ballot is just more than 200 words long.

This is what voters will see on the ballot:

"NOTICE THE FAILURE TO VOTE THIS BALLOT MAY BE THE EQUIVALENT OF A NEGATIVE VOTE, BECAUSE A CONVENTION SHALL BE CALLED OR THE AMENDMENT SHALL BECOME EFFECTIVE IF APPROVED BY EITHER THREE-FIFTHS OF THOSE VOTING ON THE QUESTION OR A MAJORITY OF THOSE VOTING IN THE ELECTION. (THIS IS NOT TO BE CONSTRUED AS A DIRECTION THAT YOUR VOTE IS REQUIRED TO BE CAST EITHER IN FAVOR OF OR IN OPPOSITION TO THE PROPOSITION HEREIN CONTAINED.) WHETHER YOU VOTE THIS BALLOT OR NOT YOU MUST RETURN IT TO THE ELECTION JUDGE WHEN YOU LEAVE THE VOTING BOOTH.

CONSTITUTION BALLOT PROPOSED AMENDMENT TO THE 1970 ILLINOIS CONSTITUTION

Explanation of Amendment

Upon approval by the voters, the proposed amendment, which takes effect on January 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 to be held on November 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. For the proposed addition of Section 5.1 to Article XIII of the Illinois Constitution."

John Bambenek, a Republican candidate for state senate in the 52nd District, earlier this month joined a lawsuit filed in Champaign County against the Illinois State Board of Elections seeking to invalidate the ballot question, saying it’s deceptive and inaccurate.

“I get that Madigan and his Chicago friends want to stick it to us, but could they do us the courtesy of doing it in a way we can understand,” Bambenek said. “This ballot question and the amendment itself are incomprehensible gibberish.”

No Need to Put This in Constitution

The Illinois League of Women Voters opposes the amendment, saying the three-fifths majority vote requirement removes control from a majority and gives it to a minority. The organization also says the requirement does not belong in the state constitution.

“The Illinois Constitution is not the place for a provision that is this specific to a single issue and to one remedy for a larger problem,” the organization writes on its website. “If the legislature determines this needs to be done, a statute which can be modified more easily is the appropriate course to take.”

The Center for Tax and Budget Accountability opposes the amendment, saying it’s a misguided attempt to address the state’s pension problems but, most important, does nothing to reduce Illinois’ multi-billion-dollar unfunded pension liability.

Amanda Kass, a pension expert with the center, said it’s also impossible to know the full implications of the amendment until after it’s in place.

“There’s no reason this constitutional amendment can’t be part of state statute,” she said, urging voters to read the various analyses of the proposal that can be found online, including one she wrote for the center.

“But also ask themselves what’s the fundamental purpose of a constitutional amendment – What’s the purpose of the constitution, and is it appropriate to have a provision in the constitution about pension benefit increases?” she asks.

Ann Lousin, a law professor at the John Marshall Law School in Chicago and an expert on the Illinois constitution, described the amendment as “catastrophic,” noting that it is “very long and includes a number of  new concepts and terms which have not been interpreted by anyone.”

Certain to Inspire Lawsuits

She also noted that it probably would lead to an onslaught of lawsuits and that it would require a new level of bureaucracy “to monitor, referee and record countless votes, meetings and issues” for 7,000 governmental entities across the state.

“… (T)his proposed constitutional amendment does nothing for the state’s pension-funding problem,” she wrote. “However, it creates many new problems and, if approved, would, in my opinion, be a catastrophe for Illinois.”

Cohen of the Liberty Justice Center said the amendment presents a conundrum for voters.

“If you support the amendment, you’re kind of furthering this fallacy that it would actually mean something. But opposing it sends the signal to local decision-makers who already are spending beyond what the taxpayers can afford to just spend more,” she said.

“Really, the bottom line is it’s not worthy of the constitution, and we need to stand up and say this is fake reform and we simply can’t support it.”

Illinois Watchdog covers the Illinois General Assembly and state government and is sponsored by the Franklin Center for Government & Public Integrity. Contact Jayette Bolinski at jayette.bolinski@franklincenterhq.org. Find Illinois Watchdog on Facebook and follow its journalism on Twitter @ilwatchdog.

This post is published on all Patches in the suburban Chicago network. Have an opinion on this constitutional amendment? Share your views with readers throughout the Chicago area.

Jack November 02, 2012 at 04:52 PM
Jeff: I am not trying to say that all teachers are always powerless in the face of union leadership. I am trying to explain that college grads who enter into a teaching career have no clue what it is all about. Also, as far as the NEA and the IEA (national teacher union and IL teacher union respectively) regular every-day teachers have virtually no influence or effective way to effect decisions of these unions. Trust me, I am in NO WAY defending these large scale national or state entities. 95% of a teacher's union dues go to these unions with or without the teacher's consent. In terms of electing union officials: Its is a joke. There is a big difference between a local teachers' union and these large powerful unions. I recognize that many conservative minded people don't believe that public employees should be allowed to collectively bargain. I also recognize that many people don't believe that unions should exist at all. I will not try to change anyone's opinions on that matter at this time. I'm also not trying to cast teachers as plaster saints; but making teachers out to be parasites and villians is irresponsible and misleading.I fully understand how angry and helpless people can feel when they see the amount of taxes they pay in property, IL income, Federal income, SS, and Medicare. But remember: we pay that stuff too. (except SS) And I'm NOT trying to say that TRS and SS are anywhere near the same. I recognize that TRS has far higher payouts, I'm not naive.
Juvenal November 02, 2012 at 05:07 PM
The actual SS contribution for a private worker is 10.4 % (and is usually 12.4% exept the last two years) because the employer is required to pay another 6.2% of your salary that you never see. Local school districts pay less than 1% into TRS for their employees, so these dumbass school boards can overpay their teachers without feeling the costs of the pensions -- trying to fix this doomed pension reform earlier this year because of course property taxes will go up when schools have to behave like every other employer. No one blames teachers but the teachers unions are so unyielding when it comes to any solution to the pension crisis (other than "raise taxes so we get ours") that they make the tea party look as accomodating as neville Chamberlain. Their solution will never work, you could never raise IL taxes enough to pay all these pensions because as the business climate here worsens and taxes skyrocket all the jobs and people will flee to other states, so the tax base will shrink so fast you could never make it up with higher rates and fees, which only promote more flight, etc....
Jack November 02, 2012 at 06:23 PM
Jeff: An interesting way of looking at the issue of local property taxes. I see the logic of your argument, but I still don't see what we are really arguing. At the end of the day, do you oppose just the current teacher pension system? Or do you oppose current teacher pay as well? I want to be clear on this. (some of the following facts are from the top of my head so correct me if anyone sees something out of line): The TRS system as it was designed in the 1970's was that teachers pay a certain percentage (approx. 9.2% today) from their check to the pension. In return, the state government would match the amount that teachers pay with a like amount from IL income tax. Teachers would then earn somewhere in the neighborhood of 80% of their salary once they retire. (No one can doubt that this is a very attractive pension plan!) Lots of questions arise from this. Why would the state government back in the 1970's do this? More importantly, why didn't more people react with outrage back then? Is this pension policy truly unacceptable? Or is the conservative attack on teacher pensions more of a symptom of the recent econmic recession? The "pension crisis" that everyone is talking about right now has arisen because the state government for years DID NOT contribute its required amount. Instead, they chose to ignore these payments in order to make up for budget shortfalls in other areas. I'll go on later, first I need to know if we disagree on this.
Paul L. November 02, 2012 at 06:34 PM
Here's a link....enjoy! http://usnews.nbcnews.com/_news/2012/11/02/14881090-teachers-unions-in-ohio-try-to-get-educators-elected-to-state-offices?lite
DG Guy November 02, 2012 at 09:51 PM
I don't think it's fair calling this a "conservative attack on teacher pensions". The system has blown up and in Illinois liberals and conservatives are coming to the same conclusions. You're right that the state did not contribute for several years. They took a "pension holiday". The unions. for some reason, signed off on this. Even if they had not taken that holiday, there would be a problem (albeit a smaller one.) The contributions that both parties paid into the system over the past 40 years were not sufficient to fund payouts. Actuaries typically decide how much needs to be contributed to a pension to keep it going. Instead of letting actuaries decide in Illinois, politicians just dreamed up a percentage to contribute. It was not nearly enough.

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