Don't simply stiff the pensioners
I was disappointed in Professor Reynolds' "analysis" in her column "Pension reform and the constitution." She argues that the legislature need not worry about the constitutional prohibition against diminishing or impairing teacher pension benefits because that provision "mirrors" the provision of the U.S. Constitution regarding impairment of contracts.
Drafters of this provision were not trying to "mirror" the Constitution. They were trying to prevent what was already a problem in Illinois — underfunding state pension systems. This section specifically refers to pensions, not other types of contracts because, even then, the legislature could not be trusted. They were saying, in effect, "Go ahead and spend the money elsewhere but you can't avoid the promises you make to state workers." Of course, legislators ignored the prohibition because there was still plenty of time to push the fix down the road.
Now, fixing the problem is going to hurt because the legislature has so far lived up to its unblemished record of irresponsibility and the longer we wait, the more it will hurt. It will require sacrifice by all Illinois residents because we all benefitted in some way from the diverted pension funds. This is a point not often mentioned. It would be manifestly unfair to place the entire burden of fixing the problem on state workers while exonerating everyone else.
Fixing the pension mess fairly will actually help repair Illinois's financial image and save us all in interest costs. What we should not do is rely on Professor Reynolds's advice and simply stiff the pensioners. If we want to change the Constitution for "important public purposes," we should seek to amend it. I am confident the courts will, and should, interpret the Constitution as written and as intended.
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