State legislative leaders may have worked out a historic overhaul to the state public employee pension system, but the courts could, in the end, decide the issue.
A coalition of labor unions is poised to file a lawsuit if the pension bill that sailed through the House Executive Committee this morning eventually clears both chambers and is signed into law by Gov. Pat Quinn.
“We certainly hope it won’t come to that but we are prepared if it does,” says Anders Lindall, spokesman AFSCME Council 31, which represents public employees.
Labor maintained from the start of the pension debate that nearly every proposal made to reduce pension payments violates the state constitution. The constitution, written in 1970, decrees that pension payments made from the state government to public employees is an enforceable contractual relationship that cannot be taken away even through legislation.
This includes the bill currently under consideration, which essentially gives public employees a choice between seeing significant decreases to their annual lower cost of living adjustment (COLA) or forgoing their state subsidized retiree health care.
Bill proponents argue that by providing public pension holders this voluntary choice they are adhering to contract law and the state constitution. Also, proponents like State Rep. Elaine Nekritz (D-Northbrook), author of the bill that first cleared the House Executive Committee Thursday, point out that the state paying for retiree health care was created by state statute, not collective bargaining.
John Stevens, an attorney retained by the We Are One coalition, countered in House testimony that the choice is a coercive one – retirees either lose their health care or get significantly less money in their yearly pension.
Ann Lousin, a professor at John Marshall Law School who has written on the state constitution and was a research assistant in its development, states that she is not sure if the bill is unconstitutional, but that the unions have a valid point. “It is not really a choice – no matter what happens you are going to get less than you are entitled to now,” Lousin says.
Lousin acknowledges the argument from Nekritz that health care is not part of the constitutional pension guarantee, “but when you start moving around health care into the pensions, it becomes a mess,” she added.
Kent Redfield, a political science professor at the University of Illinois-Springfield, anticipates a lawsuit that will find its way to the Illinois Supreme Court. As with Lousin, Redfield is not sure if the bill is unconstitutional but doubts the legislation gives labor a voluntary choice.
“You could argue that the choice is not that different from a protection racket saying give us money or we’ll break your legs,” Redfield says.