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

7 thoughts on “Sosnowski: Amending state Constitution critical to fixing pension system

  • December 10, 2014 at 8:37 pm
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    “The power of changing the relative situation of debtor and creditor, of interfering with contracts, a power which comes home to every man, touches the interest of all, and controls the conduct of every individual in those things which he supposes to be proper for his own exclusive management, had been used to such an excess by the state legislatures, as to break in upon the ordinary intercourse of society, and destroy all confidence between man and man. This mischief had become so great, so alarming, as not only to impair commercial intercourse and threaten the existence of credit, but to sap the morals of the people and destroy the sanctity of private faith…” (Chief Justice Marshall).

    Eighty years ago, U.S. Supreme Court Justice George Sutherland stated: “The framers wrote the Contract Clause for the very reason that they feared emergencies unwisely tempt legislatures to loosen contract rights… [The] meaning of constitutional provisions [at both state and federal levels] is changeless; it is only their application which is extensible… [W]hatever tends to postpone or retard the enforcement of a contract, to that extent weakens the obligation.”

    To possess a right to a promised deferred compensation, such as a pension, is to assert a legitimate claim with all Illinois legislators to protect that right. There are no rights without obligations. They are mutually dependent. Fulfilling a contract is a legal and moral obligation justified by trust among elected officials and their constituents.

    The keeping of contractual promises is the Illinois General Assembly’s legal duty. It is something the State and U.S. Constitutions require them to do whether they want to or not. All citizens of the State of Illinois have legal justification for their rights, especially for compensation they have earned. For rights and obligations are logically correlative, and a citizen’s rights imply or complement the legislators’ obligation to guarantee them.

    There is nothing ambiguous or vague about these decrees:

    “No State shall…pass any…ex post facto law or Law impairing the Obligation of Contracts…” (The Constitution of the United States, Article 1—Limitations on Powers of States, Section 10).

    “No ex post facto law, or law impairing the obligation of contracts…shall be passed” (The Constitution of the State of Illinois, Article I—Bill of Rights, Section 16).

    “Each prospective holder of a State office or other State position created by this Constitution, before taking office, shall take and subscribe to the following oath or affirmation: ‘I do solemnly swear (affirm) that I will support the Constitution of the United States, and the Constitution of the State of Illinois, and that I will faithfully discharge the duties of the office of…to the best of my ability’” (The Constitution of the State of Illinois, Article XIII—Oath or Affirmation of Office, Section 3).

    “Membership in any pension or retirement system of the State, any unit of local government or school district, or any agency or instrumentality thereof, shall be an enforceable contractual relationship, the benefits of which shall not be diminished or impaired” (The Constitution of the State of Illinois, Article XIII—Pension and Retirement Rights, Section 5).

    We cannot mistake the meaning of words such as “shall be an enforceable contractual relationship, the benefits of which shall not be diminished or impaired” because we understand and speak the English language. If words in our State Constitution are to refer or mean anything, they must be commonly understood and accepted as they have been for decades. Moreover, if words are to refer to anything, they must also be understood through their use, role, employment and past agreements.

    We have before us “the validity of decades of judicial precedents” that provide “the binding nature of legislation establishing pension commitments to government employees.”

    If there is anything else we might examine regarding the Pension Clause and its relationship to a reality that reveals repeated attempts by the wealthy elite, their politicians and the media to steal constitutionally-guaranteed pension benefit rights, perhaps we should also dispute the relentless attacks on the very intelligibility of the English language by liars and thieves.

    As stated, the foundation of public employees’ and retirees’ rights is the State and U.S. Constitutions that directly support any claims against them. State contracts are also protected by the federal government. Understandably, the 5th and 14th amendments of the United States Constitution protect due process of law. In Illinois, the legal bases for protection of past-and-future public pension rights are established in both constitutions.

  • December 10, 2014 at 9:24 pm
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    There is a problem with the pension system, but it is the fault of all the political hacks who never funded it properly. Now all these young political people want to take away what we state workers earned. I came to work for the state, because of the benefits. I’d still be there if Blago had not given my job to one of his cronies. There are also some people who are getting more than their correct share, because they held a higher paying job for a short time. Start with them first. I also rememember the representative who is the subject of this news story. His campaign people plastered all of our mailboxes with his stickers when he was an alderman.. I don’t have much faith in political people.

  • December 11, 2014 at 10:21 am
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    Here’s something you can do Joe. Roll up your sleeves and start working on a progressive income tax and go after Illinois corporations that don’t pay state income taxes and those that pay very little through generous and unnecessary tax breaks. Changing the constitution to meet your needs is just another form of kicking the can down the road.

  • December 12, 2014 at 6:29 am
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    Rep. Sosnowski should read the U.S. Constitution’s contract protection clause.

    The Contract Clause appears in the United States Constitution, Article I, section 10, clause 1. It states:

    No State shall enter into any Treaty, Alliance, or Confederation; grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal; coin Money; emit Bills of Credit; make any Thing but gold and silver Coin a Tender in Payment of Debts; pass any Bill of Attainder, ex post facto Law, or Law impairing the Obligation of Contracts, or grant any Title of Nobility.

    The Contract Clause prohibits states from enacting any law that retroactively impairs contract rights.

    According to Westlaw, the most cited case about the U.S. Constitution’s contract protection clause and states powers is the case, U.S. Trust Co. of New York v. New Jersey, 97 S.Ct. 1505. In that case, the U.S. Supreme Court stated:

    “Contract Clause of [U.S.] Constitution limits otherwise legitimate exercise of state legislative authority, and existence of important public interest is not always sufficient to overcome that limitation……..”.

    also:

    “If a State could reduce its financial obligations whenever it wanted to spend the money for what it regarded as an important public purpose, the Contract Clause would provide no protection at all.”

  • December 12, 2014 at 4:40 pm
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    Does anyone believe that IL state legislators (freed from the constitutional constraint put there to prevent the kind of action Mr. Sosnowski endorses) will not take the “viable path” to totally dismantling the TRS because of (name the pretext)? All these decades (in spite of warnings) the lawbreakers of the most corrupt state in the union failed to act to fulfill their oath of office, and the effort to make a change in the IL constitution is yet another egregious action to punish the public retirees of this state. Think back to the reaction of the judge a while ago when their pensions were under discussion.

    Sick and tired and angry and cynical.Thirty-six years as a public school educator, and now having to sweat out my future income. The anger and rage is rising at both state and national levels. Once there is nothing left to lose…

  • December 12, 2014 at 8:54 pm
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    We have made promises to people. When we break our promises, we are left with no moral authority, no reason for people to obey our laws, because we ignore them.

  • December 14, 2014 at 1:37 pm
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    I just read this week’s issue of the Rock River Times. Representative Sosnowski also voted against campaign reform as Illinois is trying to become the third state in the country to stop corporations from buying elections. Finding an honest political person is as rare as hearing a good song on the radio. Neither really exist anymore.

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