It was the dog’s failure to bark in the night that provided a crucial clue in “Silver Blaze,” one of the most popular Sherlock Holmes short stories. Similarly, a failure by members of the Illinois House and Senate to vote on legislation addressing the serious problems surrounding public pensions will be similarly revealing.
Do legislators, who resume deliberations on Nov. 8th, have the stomach to confront a tough issue involving politically active public employee union members and pensions? If they do, what programmatic changes will they recommend to address the underfunding and possible collapse someday of the pension systems covering many thousands of current and retired state employees?
Illinois House Republican Leader Tom Cross said this week that he has rounded up 30 votes to go with another 30 democratic votes provided by Democratic speaker Michael Madigan in support of a bill to establish a new three-tiered pension system.
Sixty votes are required to pass the bill in the House.
But Cross has made statements like that before. “This has got to be the third or fourth time Cross has said that we’ll have a vote on this, and nothing has happened,” said state Sen. Michael Frerichs, a Champaign Democrat.
State Rep. Chad Hays, a Catlin Republican, also expressed skepticism. “I would be surprised if the bill is called,” said Hays.
Public pensions in Illinois, particularly in the context of the state’s horrendous debt, have become a huge problem. Legislators have irresponsibly refused to make the necessary contributions to the funds, making it extremely difficult over the long term to keep its promises to state employees.
The plan Cross and Madigan are touting calls for a tiered system that gives members three options. Employees could:
-Remain in the current defined-benefit program but make increased contributions
-Go into a second tier approved for recent employees that carries reduced benefits
-Select a 401(k) defined contribution plan
The plan would not affect benefits employees have already earned, just those going forward after the legislation takes effect.
There are differing legal opinions about the proposal because the Illinois Constitution protects public employees against reductions of their pension benefit. But does that mean the rules surrounding an employee’s pension program cannot be changed after he is hired? Or does it mean that what an employee already has earned cannot be taken away, but the benefits to be earned in the future can be changed?
Frerichs said he’s convinced, based on a legal opinion drafted by the lawyer for Senate President John Cullerton, the proposal won’t pass legal muster. Consequently, he said he will not support it. “I don’t see any reason to pass bills you think are unconstitutional just to please the Chicago Tribune,” said Frerichs, referring to the Tribune’s strong editorial support for changes in the state’s pension plans.
Needless to say, this is a politically tough issue. Unionized public employees opposing the legislation jammed the state Capitol in Springfield this week, ultimately forcing the secretary of state to close building entrances because of a safety threat.
On the other side, supporters of changes to the pension program are threatening political retaliation against any Republican legislator who votes no. “The people of Illinois deserve a roll call vote in Springfield on pension reform. This way we can hold our elected officials responsible,” said Adam Andrzejewski, who runs the political reform group For the Good of Illinois.
“We will do our best to find or fund primary challenges for any Republican who votes against pension reform. “
That threat, of course, provides significant incentive for legislators not to vote on the bill, particularly if there are not enough votes to pass it.
Although Republican and Democratic House leaders support the pension bill, Senate President Cullerton does not. However, he has said that he will allow a vote in the Senate if the House passes the measure. The only way to test the constitutionality of the measure is for the bill to be passed into law and then challenged in the courts.
Andrzejewski said that’s what needs to be done. “(Constitutionality) is a straw-man argument. It needs to be tested (in the courts),” he said.
Driving the pension issue is not just the underfunding of the system but a series of scandals involving politically connected employees of private organizations who have benefitted from special legislation awarding them generous public pensions.
Andrzejewski, who ran for the Republican nomination for governor in 2010, also has drawn attention to public pension costs by establishing a website (openthebooks.com) that reveals the salaries and pension status of all public employees in Illinois.
He calls the pension issue facing Illinois the “salient issue of our generation” because of its financial implications.
Obviously, there’s heat and risk on all sides of the issue, enough to provide legislators, especially those running for re-election in newly drawn state House and Senate districts next year, a good reason to keep their heads down and their mouths shut – just like the guard dog in “Silver Blaze.”
By Jim Dey
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