Vote 'yes' on Amendment 49 to the Illinois Constitution.
While Illinois legislators have been extremely reluctant to make big decisions about the state's financially troubled public pension systems, they're offering voters the opportunity in the Nov. 6 election to make a small one.
Amendment 49 will be added to the Illinois Constitution if it is approved.
The proposed amendment would require a three-fifths vote, compared to a simple majority, by the Legislature as well as local governmental bodies like school boards and city councils, to increase retirement benefits for public employees.
The News-Gazette, not without reservation, recommends a "yes" vote on this proposal. In our view, the proposed three-fifths requirement represents a stronger safeguard against further manipulations of the state's public pensions that threaten the systems' financial viability.
It also would send a message from the voters to their elected representatives in Springfield that the public is aware of the state's pension problems and wants steps taken to address them.
Conversely, a "no" vote could be interpreted by Gov. Pat Quinn and legislators as indifference or even opposition to making the kind of tough decisions that will be necessary to eliminate the pensions' collective underfunding of $80 billion-plus.
The questions that have been raised about the amendment do not concern the merits of the proposal — the three-fifths requirement — but instead focus on a suggested hidden meaning.
Some claim the amendment's wording, specifically its final paragraph, might provide the legal grounds to repeal Article XIII, Section 5 — the constitutional provision that guarantees pension benefits, once earned, cannot be reduced. Critics suggest that with Amendment 49 in place, state legislators could solve state pension problems by reducing pensions benefits for current workers or retirees.
Although we understand the fears and concerns of members of the state's pension systems, we do not read the language in the manner the critics suggest.
The disputed provision states:
"Nothing in this section shall prevent the passage or adoption of any law, ordinance, resolution, rule, policy or practice that further restricts the ability to provide a 'benefit increase,' 'emolument increase,' or 'beneficial determination,' as those terms are used under this section."
Steve Brown, a spokesman for House Speaker Michael Madigan, the chief sponsor of the amendment, said that provision was added to the amendment to make it clear to governmental bodies that their ability to grant salary increases would not be restricted.
There is no question that Illinois has big problems with its public pension systems. This amendment won't do much to solve them. But it's a small step in the right direction, and, therefore, worth voter support.