By Jayette Bolinski
SPRINGFIELD — Opposition to a proposed pension-related constitutional amendment that will go before Illinois voters Nov. 6 is creating strange bedfellows — from public employee unions to good-government groups that agree the question is not worthy of a change to the state’s constitution and does nothing to address the pension crisis.
Groups opposed to the amendment are numerous and come from all walks of life. It’s no surprise that public-employee unions from Chicago to Cairo are opposed to the amendment, which requires a three-fifths majority vote before any public body can approve a pension benefit increase.
Good-government groups, such as the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability and the Illinois Policy Institute, also are against it. So are Protestants for the Common Good, the state’s League of Women Voters and the Illinois Green Party.
The groups usually don’t see eye-to-eye on how to achieve pension reform. But Constitutional Amendment 49 has turned adversaries into allies, each with an eye on a common goal – defeating the amendment.
“I wish I could say it’s because of shared principles,” Diane Cohen of the Chicago-based Liberty Justice Center said of the unexpected alliances. “We certainly just view this as fake reform. It does nothing to address the pension crisis in the state. But worse than that, it pulls the wool over the voters’ eyes to try to pretend that the legislators are actually doing something in the face of this crisis.”
Illinois has a pension-funding shortfall of at least $85 billion. New reporting requirements by investment groups put the liability in the neighborhood of $200 billion.
In April the Illinois House unanimously approved a measure put forth by Speaker Michael Madigan, a Democrat, that would ask voters if approval of public-pension boosts in Illinois should require a supermajority vote of three-fifths (60 percent) instead of a simple majority vote. Madigan called it “tough medicine” for a state deep in debt.
The Illinois Senate also approved the measure, with only two lawmakers there voting against it. Since then, critics have called the proposal “catastrophic,” “do-nothing,” “misguided,” “incomprehensible” and “diabolical and feckless.”
“The only people we’ve seen pushing this so far are the politicians themselves,” said Anders Lindall, spokesman for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 31, which represents thousands of state workers. “It really validates our view that this is a politician-protection amendment. This is not a pension amendment. It should be defeated.”
Groups that support the amendment are difficult to find. Some lawmakers spoke in favor of it during the spring legislative session. Rep. Dwight Kay, R-Edwardsville, said the amendment made good business sense.
“This is a big decision that impacts the state of Illinois,” Kay said. “I support this because this is a good business decision. This is the way the state of Illinois should run.”
But others have found numerous reasons to object.
For example, the language is too long and complicated for average voters to understand, some say. The proposed Illinois constitutional amendment is more than 700 words — longer than the preamble to the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Meanwhile, the diluted explanation of the proposed amendment that voters will find on the Nov. 6 ballot is just more than 200 words long.
John Bambenek, a Republican candidate for state senate in the 52nd District, last week joined a lawsuit filed in Champaign County against the Illinois State Board of Elections seeking to invalidate the ballot question, saying it’s deceptive and inaccurate.
“I get that Madigan and his Chicago friends want to stick it to us, but could they do us the courtesy of doing it in a way we can understand,” Bambenek said. “This ballot question and the amendment itself are incomprehensible gibberish.”
The Illinois League of Women Voters opposes the amendment, saying the three-fifths majority vote requirement removes control from a majority and gives it to a minority. The organization also says the requirement does not belong in the state constitution.
“The Illinois Constitution is not the place for a provision that is this specific to a single issue and to one remedy for a larger problem,” the organization writes on its website. “If the legislature determines this needs to be done, a statute which can be modified more easily is the appropriate course to take.”
The Center for Tax and Budget Accountability opposes the amendment, saying it’s a misguided attempt to address the state’s pension problems but, most important, does nothing to reduce Illinois’ multi-billion-dollar unfunded pension liability.
Amanda Kass, a pension expert with the center, said it’s also impossible to know the full implications of the amendment until after it’s in place.
“There’s no reason this constitutional amendment can’t be part of state statute,” she said, urging voters to read the various analyses of the proposal that can be found online, including one she wrote for the center.
“But also ask themselves what’s the fundamental purpose of a constitutional amendment – What’s the purpose of the constitution, and is it appropriate to have a provision in the constitution about pension benefit increases?” she asks.
Ann Lousin, a law professor at the John Marshall Law School in Chicago and an expert on the Illinois constitution, described the amendment as “catastrophic,” noting that it is “very long and includes a number of new concepts and terms which have not been interpreted by anyone.”
She also noted that it probably would lead to an onslaught of lawsuits and that it would require a new level of bureaucracy “to monitor, referee and record countless votes, meetings and issues” for 7,000 governmental entities across the state.
“… (T)his proposed constitutional amendment does nothing for the state’s pension-funding problem,” she wrote. “However, it creates many new problems and, if approved, would, in my opinion, be a catastrophe for Illinois.”
Cohen of the Liberty Justice Center said the amendment presents a conundrum for voters.
“If you support the amendment, you’re kind of furthering this fallacy that it would actually mean something. But opposing it sends the signal to local decision-makers who already are spending beyond what the taxpayers can afford to just spend more,” she said.
“Really, the bottom line is it’s not worthy of the constitution, and we need to stand up and say this is fake reform and we simply can’t support it.”
By Jayette Bolinski