A court decision, if upheld, will provide legislators more flexibility on the pension issue.
The seemingly endless debate over Illinois' public pension woes is not just the product of legislators' reluctance to anger powerful constituencies, like labor unions and retirees, but also of a vexing legal question involving constitutional guarantees of pension rights.
What the "non-impairment" clause of the Illinois Constitution really means is open to question because there has been no definitive ruling on the extent, if any, to which legislators may change the rules regarding pensions and other benefits.
That confusion was reduced just a bit this week when Associate Judge Steven Nardulli of Springfield dismissed a lawsuit challenging the state's authority to require retirees to pay for health insurance benefits they have been receiving at no cost.
The ruling will, of course, be appealed, and there is no guarantee other judges will accept Nardulli's ruling. But, for now at least, legislators have a ruling that can guide their decisions on the pension issue.
In ruling as he did, Nardulli held that the non-impairment clause "only protects pensions as opposed to other employment benefits." Further, he said the Legislature was well within its authority last year when it voted to end the practice of allowing some retired state workers free health insurance.
"There is no vested right in the continuation of a law," he concluded.
Reaction was quick. AFSCME's executive director Henry Bayer screamed bloody murder while Gov. Pat Quinn called the ruling "good news for taxpayers and another step forward in our effort to restore fiscal stability to Illinois."
This issue remains far from resolved. But one key to resolution is obtaining a legal interpretation from the Illinois Supreme Court that outlines just what legislators can and cannot do with respect to pensions and other benefits. This week's ruling is a step in that direction.