Brown: Illinois pensions crisis a disaster movie that never ends

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If the Illinois pension crisis were a disaster movie, it would take Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson in his rescue helicopter, Bruce Willis in his asteroid-busting spaceship and maybe even Ernest Borgnine back from the grave to save us.

Who is Hollywood’s current version of the late Shelley Winters anyway?

That tremor you felt Friday morning wasn’t the New Madrid fault line, the Midwest’s answer to the San Andreas. That was all the high-placed folks in state and local government quaking in response to the Illinois Supreme Court ruling on pensions.

There is no escape route from the tsunami of pension debt rolling toward us as a result of past mistakes, the court ruled. The only course of action is to stand firm and pay up.

Or move to Florida and hope it isn’t a hurricane that gets you instead.

Somebody slap me. This is no time for hysterics.

WHAP!

Thanks. I needed that.

Sorry, it’s just that in my own glass-half-empty way, I’d like to think of myself as an optimist.

But after reading the Supreme Court opinion, I have no idea how we’re going to get out of this worst-in-the-nation pension mess.

It turns out the Illinois Constitution is a suicide pact after all, our fates cemented in 1970 when Illinois voters approved the new constitution with its pension protection clause that basically says: Don’t touch those public employee pensions.

Enactment of the new constitution was followed by decades of public officials failing to meet our financial obligations to the pension funds, just as it had been preceded by decades of public officials failing to meet those same obligations, which is why they put the clause in there in the first place.

Now, here we are in deep doo-doo, not yogurt, and if there’s wiggle room in the court’s ruling, I didn’t see it. Judging by most of the glum reactions I’ve read from those who have been working the issue, they couldn’t find it either.

There are many who are allowed to say “I told you so” in the wake of the court’s opinion. They told us all along this legislative solution wouldn’t work.

That starts with the government employees who stood to have their benefits cut, and the unions and lawyers who stood up for them. For them, the court’s decision was a cause for celebration.

I understand why they fought for what is owed them, but I’m still not so sure it won’t backfire in the long run.

Those pushing for the government and the pension funds to go bankrupt will surely crank up the volume now, and I don’t see the outcome being any better for the public employees. The result will be that defined benefit pensions will go away for public employees just as they have for private-sector workers.

That’s what Gov. Bruce Rauner wants to do. Rauner, who also predicted the pension reform legislation would be tossed out, would protect current retirees, freeze benefits for all current public employees and put everyone in a 401(k) style plan going forward.

Rauner now says he wants a constitutional amendment to make that possible. At least he’s moved off the idea that he could move forward with his plan under current law, which seemed delusional.

But it’s far from certain, in fact doubtful, that Rauner’s constitutional change could be applied retroactively to those already working in state government.

Although the court ruling applied specifically to the state legislation, this isn’t just a state government problem.

There’s hardly a local government in Illinois that isn’t at least straining under the burden of its pension costs. Friday’s ruling was bad news for any of them who thought they could trim those obligations, which to be clear, are taxpayer obligations.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel contended Friday that the city’s approach to cutting pension benefits for its retirees dances between the Supreme Court’s don’t-go-there lava flow. I think he’s kidding himself.

The buildings aren’t falling. The rivers aren’t rising. The sun will come up as always.

Just the same, there’s some real pain headed this way and no obvious way to avoid it.


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