Sosnowski: Amending state Constitution critical to fixing pension system

State Rep. Joe Sosnowski
State Rep. Joe Sosnowski

By State Rep. Joe Sosnowski, R-Rockford

While a new governor and group of legislators prepare to take office in January, the appeal for fixing Illinois’ overwhelming $100 billion pension funding deficit awaits its fate at the state Supreme Court, where many predict a lower court’s ruling against the fix will be upheld. The reform in question is a pension plan approved last year that attempts to close the devastating funding gap by making changes to public employee pension plans to include delaying the age of retirement, slowing cost-of-living increases, and capping pensionable salary.

A Sangamon County circuit court last month struck down the law as unconstitutional, despite the pension system’s overwhelming need for reform. The lower court’s explanation zeros in on what is the biggest roadblock to enacting real pension reform, a clause in the state’s constitution that says public employee defined benefit plans are an “enforceable contractual relationship, the benefits of which shall not be diminished or impaired.”

The financial condition of Illinois’ five pension systems ranks worst in the nation. At less than 43 percent funded, the State of Illinois needs more flexibility to make much-needed changes to over-promised pension benefits. I believe it is time to remove the single, most significant barricade to enacting meaningful pension reform, the pension protection clause.

Changing the Illinois Constitution is a long process, but it is a course that involves voter participation by all stakeholders. A measure to remove the pension guarantee would first require three-fifths majority approval by the General Assembly, before placement on a general election ballot where voters make the choice.

To be clear, this doesn’t mean public employees will lose their pensions if approved, it would simply provide the state with a viable pathway to improve the current systems and allow for a compromise that is reasonable to retirees and taxpayers. Amending the Constitution is a challenge, but not an insurmountable task. Finding a solvent and sustainable solution to Illinois pension woes is critical to the financial future of our state and should be at the top of every lawmaker’s 2015 agenda.

Posted Dec. 10, 2014

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