Illinoisans have two big decisions to make by the Nov. 6 election: who they want to be the next president and whether they approve of a state pension amendment.
The amendment, House Joint Resolution Constitutional Amendment 49, is a change to the Illinois constitution regarding the General Assembly or governing body’s ability to increase pension benefits through a vote. The amendment calls for a three-fifths vote to increase pension benefits under any public pension or retirement system, which will affect public positions such as teachers, firemen and police officers.
Democratic Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan proposed the amendment, which the house unanimously approved in April, to place on the November ballot. The measure required only a 51 percent majority vote in the past.
Illinois has an at least $83 billion pension fund deficit. To prevent that amount from growing, the state’s leaders have been examining ways to prevent passing pension benefit increases without a careful look from the legislature.
People who want the Illinois constitution changed to require the three-fifths majority vote can vote yes on their Election Day ballot, and those who want the constitution to stay the way it is can vote no.
Although the options seem simple, Bruce Appleby, a member of the State Universities Annuitants Association’s board of directors, said Amendment 49 is more deceptive than it reads.
“This amendment, if it’s passed, would remove that guarantee of pensions to state employees, and that’s the greatest danger,” Appleby said.
While older individuals who are already on pension would not be affected by the amendment as much, Appleby said educators and anybody who looks to work an Illinois public job would be.
“For (younger) people, it will have an effect on their future and whether or not they want to choose to stay in Illinois and work,” Appleby said. “This will have a direct impact on future benefits.”
He said this change would dishearten him because it goes against the main reason he came to Illinois in the first place.
“I moved to Illinois 45 years ago when I finished my Ph.D.,” Appleby said. “One of the things that attracted me to Illinois was that it had such a damn good retirement system, but now I would have real questions as to, ‘Do I want to teach in that state when they have such a bad retirement system?’”
A part of the amendment titled paragraph (d), Appleby said, has convoluted wording. He said some experts who have examined the amendment at length believe it will give the legislature the ability to change pension and benefits any way it chooses.
Appleby said brochures sent to Illinoisans by the Secretary of State fail to mention paragraph (d) at all, and lawsuits that aim to eliminate the entire amendment have been filed because it is presented in a misleading and possibly illegal fashion.
City of Carbondale
Signs around Carbondale that read “Vote No” were put out by Appleby and others and were paid for with donations from Illinois voters determined to deny Amendment 49 from being passed.
Mayor Joel Fritzler said he supports the amendment because it will make it harder for the General Assembly to increase pensions, which plays a big factor in the Illinois pension crisis.
“Essentially, the general assembly can vote to raise the pensions for public safety personnel, police officers and firefighters, and it’s up to the municipalities to then pay for it,” Fritzler said. “So with the simple majority, that helps give a little protection to the city.”
Council member Jane Adams said in an email she is against Amendment 49 because it is unclear and does not address Illinois’ massive pension underfunding.
“It will undoubtedly require years of litigation to determine what the amendment covers and does not cover,” Adams said. “Litigation is expensive.”
While many leaders have taken a stance on the amendment, SIU President Glenn Poshard said his involvement with the issue is to encourage the university community and voters to look closely at the amendment before voting on it.
“This amendment is pretty straightforward,” he said. “People will have to make up their own mind about it.”
Poshard said he thinks the state legislature introduced the bill to help the deficit, but it will also affect the future pensions of state employees who have already been asked to contribute toward the deficit.
Gov. Pat Quinn released a plan to help reduce the pension deficit in the spring.
The two main aspects of pension reform involve pension’s normal costs and the cost-of-living adjustments (COLA). Quinn said he wants the retirement age to be raised and the amount of adjustments the state pays on pensions to be changed. He also said he wants employees to start contributing to their pensions’ normal costs.
Quinn said his plan’s goal is to eliminate the unfunded $83 million in pension costs by 2042.
Poshard said state university presidents have taken a stance on Quinn’s proposal. He said they have asked the state to increase universities’ pensions costs in increments over a six-year period rather than immediately, and the universities will contribute toward the costs rather than asking university employees to do so in exchange.
However, the unviersities’ contributions would have to come out of the institutions’ operational budgets, which have already taken a hit from state funding cuts.
In relation to the proposal’s COLA aspect, Quinn has suggested employees be given a choice between keeping the yearly 3 percent COLA increase that helps keep their pensions in line with inflation or keeping their healthcare benefits.
“That’s a really hard choice for them to make,” Poshard said. “And most people, I think, would be forced to keep their healthcare in expense of the COLA increase.”
Poshard said he does not think a decision has been made on the proposal to make employees choose between COLA and healthcare, and he thinks there will be a lot of discussion on it before it goes before the General Assembly. He said he thinks the state legislature won’t make a decision on Quinn’s proposal until January.
Although the state legislature has been working to resolve the pension debt, Poshard said, the amendment is designed to prevent the deficit from growing in the future.
He emphasized students who may not know a lot about the issues should look closely at the amendment because it affects their professors’ pensions, and it could have a direct effect on them if they ever become state employees.
“People are really going to have to take a look at this thing and decide what is important or not,” he said.