The urgency of pension reform in Illinois cannot be overstated. At the state level alone, pension payments already are estimated to consume 20 percent of government spending, and that proportion is only going to grow as each year passes. Unfortunately, a Nov. 6 ballot measure masquerading as pension reform will not address the problem and could actually make it worse.
The binding referendum asks Illinois residents whether to amend the state constitution to require a three-fifths vote by any governing body before the pensions of employees under that body can be increased. The legalistic phrasing of the referendum question isn't nearly so clear, nor is the purpose of having the question on the ballot itself. And the confusion is indicative of the very real problems with this referendum.
We've been arguing for more than a year now that the state cannot do pension reform piecemeal. We can't just say "transfer the costs to school districts" here or "increase the requirements for approval" there. True reform has to be comprehensive and thoroughly debated in all contexts.
This question embeds in the state constitution a requirement that the public has had almost no chance to consider or debate, probably that few people even know anything about, except that it sounds like it promises to make it harder to increase public workers' pensions. In point of fact, probably the only thing it will make harder to do is accomplish real pension reform.
Public worker unions are adamantly railing against the proposed amendment out of fear that the higher standard could hamper their ability to negotiate pension increases for their members. The fact is, though, that -- whether at the school board, the village board or the state legislature -- contract changes tend to be approved overwhelmingly, if not unanimously. It may be true that in occasional cases, the three-fifths requirement would impede a proposed benefit increase, but it's far more likely that it wouldn't even amount to a speed bump.
More important, if the standard is built into the constitution, it adds one more complication to the struggle to identify and implement broad-based, comprehensive reforms in the pension system that guarantee both that public employees receive the retirement income they deserve and earned and that the governing bodies who agree to those benefits can pay for them.
In the effort to strike that balance, questions like who pays how much for how long, how much can be borrowed to make the payments, how large a reserve must be maintained and when can employees start collecting are just a few of many that are far more important than how hard is it to approve increases.
The proposed constitutional amendment doesn't begin to address any of those, yet it may lull some people into thinking that something has been done to control pension spending -- thus further delaying real action until the now hotly simmering crisis simply boils over and effective reform becomes even more painful all around.
This proposal, in short, doesn't address issues that can fix our pension mess and complicates the search for options that will. Vote NO on the proposed amendment to the Illinois constitution.