Pension question on the November ballot

Updated 9/25/2012 7:19 AM

SPRINGFIELD -- The long-term future of teachers' and state workers' retirements will be an issue in the Nov. 6 election at least in part because voters will have a direct say in how benefits are decided.

Voters will be asked whether to amend the Illinois Constitution to make it more difficult for lawmakers and local officials to increase pension benefits for their employees.


The amendment would require any vote to increase retirement benefits to be approved by 60 percent of officials, not just a majority.

For the amendment to be adopted this year, 60 percent of people who vote on that question Nov. 6 must say "yes." It was approved by lawmakers overwhelmingly and placed on the ballot earlier this year.

The question comes as the battle over pensions for teachers and government workers is among the most divisive issues in Springfield, one that has been debated at the Capitol for years and has eluded closure despite bipartisan efforts this year.

Quickly rising pension costs take away from money the state can spend on schools, prisons, care for the disabled and other programs.

"Nobody is proclaiming it as a solution," Steve Brown, spokesman for House Speaker Michael Madigan, said of the amendment. "But it's another step."

Madigan has faced some criticism over the amendment because past pension benefit increases approved by lawmakers have been nearly unanimous votes, which the proposed new rules wouldn't have stopped.

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And a bipartisan report from earlier this year showed increased benefits over the years are not the biggest contributor to Illinois' public pension debt. More pension debt has been created by lawmakers failing to pay enough into the state's retirement accounts.

State lawmakers right now face another bigger pension payment in 2013 and will have to look for cuts elsewhere to pay for it unless they make changes to the retirement systems.

Union leaders say they'll push back against the amendment, which ties the hands of government officials when they bargain with their members.

"We're making sure our members understand that this is a bad proposal," said Illinois Education Association spokesman Charlie McBarron.

But neither side is waging an organized campaign about the plan, leaving it mostly out of voters' minds as Election Day approaches. The Secretary of State's office is preparing to mail information about the amendment to more than 5 million households at a cost of more than $1 million -- a mailing required by law to try to make sure voters know the amendment will be on the ballot.

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