Originally Posted Online: Oct. 06, 2012, 5:47 pm
Last Updated: Oct. 07, 2012, 1:51 am

Illinoisans to decide rules for pension hike votes

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By Eric Timmons, etimmons@qconline.com

When they go to the polls in November, Illinoisans will decide on a proposed constitutional amendment that would require a supermajority vote by the General Assembly on any bill to increase pension or retirement benefits for government employees.

The proposed amendment, House Joint Resolution 49, also would require a supermajority in the Statehouse for local governments and school districts requesting an increase in employee pensions through sweeteners such as bonuses or compensated time off.

Lawmakers voted earlier this year with overwhelming majorities in both chambers to ask voters to decide on the proposed amendment through a referendum question that will be on the Nov. 6 ballot.

State Rep. Rich Morthland, R-Cordova, and State Rep. Pat Verschoore, D-Milan, both voted in favor of sending the question to voters. State Sen. Mike Jacobs, D-East Moline, was one of only two votes against the measure in the Illinois Senate.

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees has joined teachers unions to call on its members to oppose the amendment.

AFSCME officials say the proposed change would be undemocratic and would be "disastrous" for retirement security for government workers.

Although the amendment would require a supermajority to pass pension benefit increases, a simple majority vote would be required for benefit reductions, which has angered unions.

Some conservatives say the proposed amendment doesn't go far enough.

The Liberty Justice Center, the legal arm of the conservative Illinois Policy Institute, said lawmakers should have pushed for a change to the constitution that would prohibit pension and retirement benefit increases unless, and until, they are fully funded.

In a statement, Diane Cohen, of the Liberty Justice Center, said pension benefit increases have been approved by supermajorities in the past, raising questions about whether the proposed amendment would put the brakes on any future increases.

"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," Ms. Cohen said. "Nor would it have prevented the pension crisis the state now faces."

Illinois has an estimated unfunded public pension liability of $83 billion across five pension funds, a huge drag on the state's finances. Lawmakers failed to agree on reforms to the pension system during a special session in August.

The issue likely is to be discussed again when lawmakers meet in January. Proposals to reduce the pension crisis include increasing contributions from workers, and shifting some pension costs onto downstate school districts.