Klickna: Coalition plan is fair, effective, constitutional
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Two pending pension bills, one constitutional, Senate Bill 2404, the other unconstitutional, Senate Bill 1, could determine the direction Illinois will take in the coming years.
To move toward a better Illinois, the state Senate must reject House Speaker Michael Madigan's pension bill, SB 1. In addition, both the Illinois Senate and House must pass, and Gov. Pat Quinn must sign, SB 2404.
The latter is the bill Senate President John Cullerton negotiated with unions representing participants in the Teachers' Retirement System, the State University Retirement System and the State Employees Retirement System.
Participants in the General Assembly Retirement System would be affected by both SB 1 and SB 2404. Neither bill will apply to judges, who are part of the Judges Retirement System of Illinois.
SB 1 imposes drastic benefit cuts on the pensions of current retirees and active employees. The measure's backers claim this approach is necessary because of the state financial crisis caused by politicians who failed to perform their fiscal duty to the taxpayers of the state.
Those poorly served taxpayers include the public employees whose retirement savings are under attack. It's often forgotten that the same citizens whose pension benefits are currently in play are taxpayers as well.
While the backers of SB 1 are promising billions of dollars in savings, in truth there will be no savings at all. That's because SB 1 blatantly violates the Illinois Constitution's pension protection clause, which states that pension benefits "shall not be diminished or impaired."
Interestingly, even SB 1's backers don't claim it will survive a court challenge. Their reaction is, "Let's find out."
That irresponsible approach to public policy caused the mess that Illinois is dealing with now. We have to be smart and pass constitutional bills.
If SB 1 is signed into law, the unions will sue and, eventually, win. The legal battle will take at least a year, meaning the problems caused by the state's underfunding of the pension systems will have gone another year without being addressed. That's bad for the systems and bad for Illinois.
The alternative to unconstitutional SB 1 is SB 2404, the product of months of intense negotiations between Senate President Cullerton and the unions comprising the We Are One Illinois labor coalition (including the Illinois Education Association, the Illinois Federation of Teachers, AFSCME, SEIU and the AFL-CIO).
A key element in SB 2404 is the language that guarantees pension funding. This will help guard against a repeat of the mistakes made by politicians of the past.
While both bills employ a "choice" concept to meet the constitutional challenge, only the Cullerton-Coalition bill provides something of value in exchange for a participant agreeing to a benefit change.
The unions believe SB 2404 is constitutional, and we urge that it be passed.
From day one, the unions have stated their willingness to help solve the problem that the politicians caused on the condition that the solution is constitutional and fair and stabilizes the pension systems.
Our members not only have an interest in having solvent, stable pension systems. We also have an interest in a solvent state government that is capable of funding education, public safety, public health and all the other crucial public services on which Illinoisans rely.
Every teacher in Illinois has faced cuts in resources for students. How teachers react to this situation is telling: They reach in their own pockets so the students don't lose out. That's what teachers do.
They've done the same where the state's budget problems are concerned. Teachers didn't cause the problem, but they, along with other union employees, are willing to help solve it.
Rejecting SB 1 and passing SB 2404 into law will allow Illinois to move forward and work on addressing the many other important needs of our state.
• Cinda Klickna is president of the Illinois Education Association.
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