Pension issue now in courts
Now that the executive and legislative branches of government finally have acted, it's the judiciary's turn.
The leaders of Illinois' public employee unions this week fired another shot across the bow of Gov. Pat Quinn as he prepared to deliver today's annual State of the State address in Springfield.
On Tuesday, a coalition of unions representing state employees, teachers and university employees filed a lawsuit in Sangamon County that challenges the constitutionality of the pension reform legislation recently passed into law. That lawsuit was preceded by a separate but similar lawsuit filed by retired public employees.
The challenges come as no surprise. The good news is that they set the stage for finally getting a meaningful answer to the much-discussed question about what the non-diminution clause of the Illinois Constitution really means with respect to the pension issue.
Does it mean that only those benefits already earned cannot be reduced and that legislation affecting future increases can be modified? If it does, the pension reform legislation will stand.
Or does it mean that once a public employee is enrolled in a public pension plan that both benefits earned and benefits not yet earned are carved in stone? If that is the case, the pension bill falls.
To put the issue in more practical terms: Is the Legislature barred from modifying promised 3 percent annual cost-of-living increases even if they are unaffordable and subject the state to dire financial problems?
Legislators, union leaders and all manner of people have spoken definitely about what they think the non-diminution clause means. But the unvarnished fact is that those interpretations are meaningless speculation: The only opinion that matters is the one that ultimately will be delivered by the Illinois Supreme Court.
Of course, it's going to take a while for the issue to wend its way up from the bottom to the top of the state's judicial hierarchy. It's our hope and expectation that the Supreme Court will put this case on its rocket docket and, bypassing the state's appeals court, hear a direct appeal from the circuit court.
Time being of the essence, there is no good reason to do otherwise.
There is much riding on the pension issue in Illinois. One way or another, Gov. Quinn, legislators and the people of Illinois need to know if the pension reform bill passes constitutional muster or if everyone must go back to square one and re-address the ongoing pension crisis.