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Sosnowski: Let Illinois Voters Have Voice in Pension Debate

In recent years, Illinois residents and businesses have seen historic increases in taxes. Illinois continues to be a structurally unfriendly environment for both families and businesses alike, and further tax burdens will simply drive jobs and people from our state. These most recent rate increases bring in over $6 billion a year in additional revenue, but despite this increase, our unfunded liabilities continue to grow and the number is quickly approaching $100 billion.

While that number is too large to put into context, its effects are dramatic. Increasingly, more taxpayer dollars are going to fund pension liabilities rather than essential infrastructure, education, research, or economic development. Last year alone, Illinois roughly spent more on pensions and debt repayment than on elementary and secondary education. As growing pension liabilities continue, vital services, education, infrastructure and human services will continue to face drastic cuts.

I believe State employees have worked hard and faithfully, and deserve a retirement plan that is dependable yet affordable for taxpayers. Change will not be easy; however, adjustments are needed to stabilize our pension system and ensure that the State can continue to offer retirement benefits to its employees, now and in the future.

We need to modify the existing plans to minimize the weight placed on those who are retired or close to retirement. To be beneficial, these changes will need to affect many areas including retirement age, total benefits, and contribution levels. Unfortunately, one major stumbling block in pension negotiations remains a provision in Illinois’ constitution that guarantees pension benefits will not be “diminished or repaired.”

This problem affects everyone and I believe the taxpayers should have the ability to provide their input in the state retirement system and should be able to make the changes needed to have a sustainable system.

In response, I have sponsored a constitutional amendment to the Illinois Constitution, HJRCA11. If approved by the voters of Illinois, this provision would repeal the stipulation in the Illinois constitution that prohibits changes to the unmaintainable pension systems. We all contribute to this benefit system and therefore deserve the opportunity to redefine the structure if necessary.

Currently in Illinois, a constitutional clause can be modified per article 14, section 2, by a vote of the legislature and then by a majority vote of the citizens of Illinois in the next general election. The soonest HJRCA 11 could be brought to the voters would be in 2014. This is the right of taxpayers.

Our state is facing nearly $100 billion in unfunded pension liabilities, more than $54 billion in unfunded retire health care benefits for government workers, and $15 billion in pension obligation bond debt. As citizens of Illinois, we all understand and share in the difficult situation our state is facing. Structural change is necessary to ensure that the state can offer retirement benefits to its employees that have contributed faithfully over decades.

It’s time we do something historic that doesn’t involve tax increases.

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8 Comments

  1. Gary Osborn

    I like the concept, hopefully we will also be able to vote on the salaries of the state representatives and senators who put us in this mess.

  2. Joe Cardinal

    Its not just the Illinois Constitution that protects the contractual relationship of pensions.

    There is a Contract Clause that appears in the United States Constitution, Article I, section 10, clause 1. It states: “No State shall enter into any Treaty, Alliance, or Confederation; …. pass any Bill of Attainder, ex post facto Law, or Law impairing the Obligation of Contracts,”

    Although some jurisdictions still hold the view that a pension granted by public authorities is not a contractual obligation but is a gratuity, a majority of jurisdictions take the view that public employees have certain contractual rights in a public pension where a pension is part of the terms of employment.

    Thus, even without the pension protection of the Illinois Constitution calling pensions a contractual relationship, the U.S. Constitution banning states passing laws that impair contracts would seem to apply in Illinois.

    The exception a state could argue, then would be that their pensions are not contracts, but gratuities. However, Illinois law bands public employees from accepting gifts or gratuities. And the Illinois State pension systems replace Social Security and are the retirement system for the employees on those pension systems. So it would be hard in Illinois to argue that pensions are gratuities – and that the US. Constitution banning states from passing laws that break contracts doesn’t apply to Illinois.

  3. I would love to see this amendment pass. Unfortunately, it has less than a snowballs chance in hell.

    Democrats will not allow this referendum to be presented to the people. Democrats cannot control the people if they let them have a say.

  4. Cecilonio

    Way to go Joe! A lot of the ‘makes no sense at all anymore’ laws from many decades ago should be modified as needed. Simply put, not all things that applied way-back-when apply now. The right to bear arms for example….when that became a constitutional right there were only muskets, bayonets and cannons, not assault weapons and the like. Things and circumstances do change.

  5. Elected officials raided the system for years and ignored the state’s obligation to maintian it. Now that we have a crisis Mr. Sosnowski wants to place the blame and solution on the very employees who have worked and paid into it by changing the constitution. I guess this is the easy way out as opposed to let’s say going to corporations and demanding they start paying their fair share in tax revenue that would sustain the treasury for years to come.

  6. It’s about who we put in office to manage the tax dollars and how it is used, Illinois talks about cuts and approved a 2.1 billion in spending this year. When we have a new governor,mayors, ete. elected many receive donations and in return expect things to happen to support their business or cause. In return for the donations they remove old programs and install new ones taylored to who or whatever the hot vote getter topic maybe for the next election. Some of their new programs cost more then is what in in the budget,so they remove money from other accounts or never put the money allowed in the account for the program, like road repair,education,mental health,pensions etc. using it on new programs and it goes on and on to the next elected person that continues the cycle until we have to many made up programs. It’s kind of like stealing and blaming it on the last several people who held the office. No one will solve the problem as all the law makers know what goes on,so they plug the hole or put the band aide on the problem on one program and will cut short other areas. So it’s not just the people who worked and paid into those state pensions that get screwed,its you me and everyone who works and pays taxes. The roads you ride on the schools you or your children attend, the police protection,mental health,public safety like prisons.Taxes dollars need to go into accounts and be managed and when there is a bad market year the money in the account can be managed to ask for a small increase to keep it running or small adjustments can be made to protect everyone and their tax dollars paid in. It a thing call being honest and serving all the people and not just the ones who elected the person into office. .

  7. Charlie

    Not so fast Representative Sosnowski. Even if the Illinois Constitution were modified, the Contract Clause of the U.S. Constitutions still states that: “No State shall …..pass any Bill of Attainder, ex post facto Law, or Law impairing the Obligation of Contracts,”

    So even if the Illinois Constitution didn’t have a pension protection clause, the contractual relationships of pension would still be protected by the U.S. Constitution.

    Although some jurisdictions still hold the view that a pension granted by public authorities is not a contractual obligation but is a gratuity, a majority of jurisdictions take the view that public employees have certain contractual rights in a public pension where a pension is part of the terms of employment.

    Thus, even without the pension protection of the Illinois Constitution, the U.S. Constitution banning states passing laws that impair contracts would seem to apply in Illinois.
    The exception a state could argue, then would be that their pensions are not contracts, but gratuities. However, Illinois law bans public employees from accepting gifts or gratuities, so it would be hard in Illinois to argue that pensions are gratuities. Furthermore, the Illinois state pensions replace Social Security of 80% of the employees covered by those state pension systems – so that would make it even harder to argue that Illinois pensions are a gratuity.

  8. eddie walls

    Great, Joe.

    So you’re willing to flush State workers and retirees down the toilet.

    Because of the State politicians choices over the years to short pension payments so they could keep their constituents happy by giving them perks. All the while knowing they were shorting the pension system. And, now YOU’VE become one of those politicians.

    BUT….stealing funds from pension system payments sure did make politician’s constituents happy & help people like yourself get RE-ELECTED….the dream of every incumbent.

    Thanks for nothing, Joe. Many of us will be sure to work hard to replace you as soon as possible.

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