By CARL GREEN
Illinois’ unionized public employees won a big victory in court in November and now are steeling themselves for the Illinois Supreme Court to take on the bill threatening their pensions.
AFSCME Council 31 and other public employee unions are challenging the validity of a bill passed by the Legislature to reduce the state’s public pension liability at the expense of pension payments promised to retirees by the state constitution.
On Nov. 21, Sangamon County Circuit Judge John Belz ruled that the pension law, signed by Gov. Pat Quinn in December 2013, is unconstitutional. In his ruling, he said the constitution is unequivocal in its pledge that promised pensions will not be cut.
“The pension protection clause contains no exception, restriction or limitation for an exercise of the state’s police powers or reserved sovereign powers,” Belz wrote.
The bill seeks to reduce pension payments by reducing cost-of-living adjustments and raising retirement ages, potentially costing many thousands of dollars to retirees who have planned their futures on receiving those pensions, in some cases to make up for long hours and low wages while they were working.
When the bill was passed, state officials said the reductions are needed because the pension liability had grown to $98 billion, the nation’s highest, following decades in which both Democratic and Republican governors chose not to provide sufficient funding for future pensions.
MORE TO COME
Belz’s ruling will not be the final word on the matter.
Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan is appealing the decision to the Illinois Supreme Court and is seeking an expedited hearing because of the potential impact on state government finances.
“We’ll continue to make our case,” said Eddie Caumiant, AFSCME’s southern Illinois regional director. “Every time we’ve been in front of a judge, we have been successful. The constitution is clear.”
Other measures of the law were a 1 percent increase in employee pension contributions – thus taking money from workers both now and later – and caps on pensionable salaries. It was to take effect on June 1, but Judge Belz delayed it while its constitutionality is being weighed.
State Rep. Joe Sosnowski (R-Rockford) is proposing a constitutional amendment to remove the pension protection.
But State Sen. Kwame Raoul, a Democrat from suburban Chicago who has been active on the issue, told his hometown Hyde Park Herald that the Supreme Court could issue guidance to the Legislature on how to deal with the problem, perhaps using new revenues such as a sales tax on services and new negotiations with the workers.
Caumiant said AFSCME would continue fighting to force the state to keep its promises to union members.
“We feel good about our case, and we feel solid about our position,” he said.