Illinois to vote on pension-related constitutional amendment

Ciara McCarthy, Reporter

Illinois voters will decide in less than two weeks the future of a proposed amendment to the state constition regarding the threshold needed to pass pension increases.

The amendment, HJRCA 49, would require a three-fifths vote from both chambers of the Illinois General Assembly to pass pension increases for public employees. Currently, pension increases need only a majority vote in the General Assembly to pass.

The referendum would amend Section 5.1 to Article XIII of the Illinois Constitution. Michael Madigan, speaker of the Illinois General Assembly, sponsored bill that placed the referendum on the ballot. The legislation was co-sponsored by two additional House representatives, as well as three state senators.

“It’s a modest step in what is going to be a very long march to try and get pensions systems in Illinois to a point where they can be sustained,” said Steve Brown, Madigan’s spokesman. Brown said the amendment would require the general assembly to think more carefully before a pension benefit can be increased.

Voters will decide on the amendment in the Nov. 6 general election. If approved, the amendment will take effect on Jan. 9, 2013.

Although Brown said he was hopeful the amendment would pass, the likelihood of voter approval remains unclear.

Many pension policy groups view the amendment as a step in the right direction toward broader pension reform. The Northwest Municipal Conference, a council of government focused on policy issues such as pension reform, has publicly supported the amendment. In a document posted on its website, the NWMC encouraged its constituents to vote “yes” on the amendment.

“For too many years, previous General Assemblies and governors have, at the behest of the unions, repeatedly approved pension benefit increases for public safety personnel with virtually no regard to the fiscal impact these sweeteners would have upon local taxpayers,” the group said in the document.

A similar group, the Illinois Municipal League, is also publicly advocating for the passage of the amendment. IML legislative director Joe McCoy noted that the legislation would be an important component in curbing the growth of pension costs.

Opposition to this amendment has also come from a variety of different groups. The Liberty Justice Center, a law firm, has argued that the legislation is a “do-nothing amendment” that won’t have any real impact on pension reform.

“We should take amending the constitution seriously,” said Diane Cohen, general counsel for the Liberty Justice Center. “This is fake reform.”

Many unions in Illinois have also voiced their opposition to the amendment because of its potential to impact the collective bargaining rights of workers. Despite these protests, proponents of the amendment remain convinced that it is an important piece of amendment reform.

“Any step to make these pension benefits more difficult to pass will help to guarantee the financial solvency of the pension funds going forward,” McCoy said.