How Iron-Clad Is Illinois Constitution’s Pension Protection?

An Illinois Senate panel has approved two competing versions of a pension overhaul. The plans would cut benefits for state and university employees, as well as Downstate and suburban public school teachers.

Both proposals would raise the retirement age and reduce the annual cost-of-living increases pensioners would get. But senators mostly focused on the legal uncertainty hanging over the entire pension debate.

At issue is a provision in the Illinois Constitution that says “pension benefits … shall not be diminished.” Sounds simple enough, but law professor Mark Rosen says the meaning of that phrase might not be as clear as it seems.

ROSEN: “Absolute constitutional language of the sort that we have in the pension clause, is not typically — in (the) Illinois Constitution or the United States Constitution — absolute and categorical.”

The pension systems are about $100 billion short of being able to meet future payments. The idea is the risk the systems will eventually go broke is its own form of “diminishment.” Rosen pointed to other constitutional protections the courts have limited — like restrictions on free speech. The measures now go before the full Senate, where it remains to be seen whether they have enough votes to pass.

— Brian Mackey

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