On Election Day, Illinoisans will see a referendum on the ballot that would, if approved by voters, install a state constitutional amendment that would boost the number of legislative votes needed to pass statewide pension increases for public employees.
If passed, Amendment 49 would require a three-fifths, or super majority, vote of approval by the General Assembly to make any increases in public employee pensions. As it stands now, only a simple majority, or one-half of the legislative vote, is needed to increase the pensions of state employees. The amendment would also apply to city and county employees as well as educators, meaning that local governments, school boards and similar legislative bodies would also be beholden to the super majority vote requirement.
But not all Illinois legislators are on board with Amendment 49.
“We use super majorities to override the governor,” said State Sen. Mike Jacobs (D-Moline), one of two state legislators who voted against the amendment. “To say we need a super majority to pass something as simple as a pension increase is incredibly gutless.”
Jacobs said that while he understands some of his colleagues really do believe in Amendment 49, legislators are more interested in amusing voters than serving them. Rather than hold a referendum that could change the Illinois Constitution, Jacobs believes the state should handle pension increase votes how it always has, by a simple majority. He said if his colleagues are against a particular pension increase, they should just vote no. “This does nothing to solve the issue [of the state's underfunded pension system],” said Jacobs.
One of the biggest pension issues in Illinois is unfunded liability. The state's unfunded liability, which is the difference between what a state owes as its required employer contribution to pensions and what it has actually paid, has been listed at $83 billion. That’s the highest in the nation.
Steve Brown, Speaker Madigan’s spokesman, was frank about how Amendment 49 solves the unfunded liability problem. “It doesn’t,” he said. “This is a small step to try to make people think more clearly about benefit changes.”
In addition to not solving funding shortcomings, Amendment 49 could also cause constant litigation, according to Anders Lindall, director of public affairs for AFSCME Council 31. Lindall said the hours of work for public employees could be changed in a collective bargaining agreement. “Does that require a super majority vote under this amendment?” Lindall asked. “Because if you work more, your pensionable income would be marginally higher. Courts would have to answer questions like that.”
Brown, though, isn’t concerned with litigation. He said someone could file a lawsuit only if there’s a vote to increase a pension and it doesn’t get the three-fifths super majority. But Brown doesn’t think the lawsuits would go anywhere. “People can file lawsuits all day long,” he said.
One member of the Cook County Board agrees with Brown in that more thought needs to be put into pension increases; but she says Amendment 49 misses the point. Commissioner Bridget Gainer (D-Chicago) said pensions have to be tied to fiscal soundness, what a fair amount is to the worker and solvency. (According to Gainer’s website, openpensions.org, Cook County’s pension will become insolvent by 2038 if no changes are made).
“None of those things are addressed in this amendment. I don’t think its evil, I just don’t think it’s what we need to be talking about right now,” said Gainer.
What does need to be talked about, according to John Marshall Law professor Ann Lousin, is the state cutting expenditures and raising taxes. She said that since the early 1980s, Illinois hasn’t imposed any income tax on public or private pensions, nor social security.
“We’re just going to have to start biting some bullets here,” she added.
Nonetheless, the impending vote on Amendment 49 has united a plethora of groups that are typically on opposite sides of the debate surrounding pension reform. In addition to AFSCME, the AFL-CIO, State Universities Annuitants Association, Retired Teachers of Chicago, Illinois Federation of of Teachers and Illinois Education Association, among other labor-related groups, oppose the amendment and are calling on voters to vote 'no'. The Center for Tax and Budget Accountability, Illinois Green Party, Protestants for the Common Good, and the League of Women voters also oppose the amendment. Additionally, more conservative-leaning groups, like the Illinois Policy Institute and the associated Liberty Justice Center (LJC), oppose the amendment as well, with LJC General Counsel Diane Cohen calling it a "do nothing amendment."
Meanwhile, municipalities and their associated groups support the controversial amendment, including the City of Chicago, Cook County Forest Preserve, Illinois Municipal League, Cook County, United Counties Council, Illinois Library Association, and the Metropolitan Mayors Caucus.
Aricka Flowers contributed to this story.