When it comes to Illinois’ pension mess, I normally criticize the Democrats. They have, after all, controlled the governorship and both houses of the legislature since 2003. With any kind of cooperation – and responsibility, they could have passed something long ago. But until last week, they didn’t have either
Last week, though, enough of the Democrats finally got together with Republicans to pass something. Too many Republicans, however, were missing in action. I realize the pension plan was not good enough. More needs to be done. But this was all there was. This was the best deal possible. Voting against it meant putting the whole thing off for another eighteen months. Also, we have no idea whether even this plan, which isn’t good enough, will pass muster with the Illinois Supreme Court.
Unfortunately, the Illinois Constitution has a strict provision when it comes to changing pension plans for public employees. Whether the clause is a good idea or not, it’s there, and we have to deal with it*. It reads as follows (Article XIII, Section 5):
“Membership in any pension or retirement system of the State, any unit of local government or school district, or any agency or instrumentality thereof, shall be an enforceable contractual relationship, the benefits of which shall not be diminished or impaired.”
It seems clear that this means benefits for past service cannot be changed. The question is what can be done with benefits for future service. Public employee unions, and some politicians, say nothing can be done. They claim that once an employee starts work for the state, his or her pension plan is fixed for life – except for increases, of course. Others say that benefits for future service can be changed. Unfortunately, the answer is not clear.
In light of that – and the political realities, the bill that the four legislative leaders (Messrs. Madigan and Cullerton on the Democratic side and Mr. Durkin and Ms. Radogno on the Republican) proposed was probably the best bill possible at this time. To say that more needed to done may be correct, but it’s not relevant. This bill doesn’t solve the problem entirely, but it helps. Even if more needs to be done in the future, the right thing to do was to pass this bill now and make it better later.
Also, this bill gives us a chance to see what the Illinois Supreme Court will do. If the Supreme Court says that the state’s constitution doesn’t allow us to do this, then we know we need to change the constitution. (Either that or default on the pensions at some point down the road.) If the Court approves the law, its opinion might tell us what more we can do in the future.
I was, therefore, disappointed that only 15 out of 47 Republicans in the Illinois House supported the bill. (47 out of 71 Democrats in the House voted yes.**) The Senate was a better story. Ten out of nineteen Republicans voted yes, which was a higher percentage than the Senate Democrats. (Only 20 out of 40 Democrats voted yes.)
All in all, it was not an impressive performance by Illinois Republicans. Of course, it wasn’t impressive that it took the Democrats this long to just barely provide enough votes to get something done (and the Senate Democrats didn’t even provide as many votes, proportionately, as the Republicans did). But I expect more of Republicans, and I was disappointed how many of them didn’t do what needed to be done.
*At least until it is changed, but that is another issue for another day.
** Given that a bill needs an absolute majority of each house of the legislature to pass, not just a majority of those voting, not voting or voting “present,” something that state Senator Barack Obama liked to do, was the equivalent of voting “No,” regardless of what the representatives and senators who did it might try to claim.