Editorial: Tough questions for a tough pension cost-cutting law

SHARE Editorial: Tough questions for a tough pension cost-cutting law
SHARE Editorial: Tough questions for a tough pension cost-cutting law

When a lawyer for the state on Wednesday, in oral arguments before the Illinois Supreme Court, defended the constitutionality of a 2013 law that would cut employee pension benefits, she was hit with tough questions.

As was only right. When tampering with promised pensions for state workers and teachers, the burden is on the state to square that with the Constitution and the law.


StateSolicitor General Carolyn Shapirodid just that, persuasively so, arguing that a clause in the state Constitution thatprotects benefits from being impaired or diminished is not absolute. As with any right — even the right to free speech — it is subject to limits. In rare and extreme circumstances, modifying pensions can be justified, and we face such extreme circumstances now, given our state’s fiscal crisis. That is true even if state lawmakers were partially responsible for creating the crisis. Illinois is in a fiscal free fall.

The pension-reform law, pushed by Democrats, reduces the state’s staggering $110 billion unfunded pension liability, mostly by scaling back cost-of-living benefit increases. This will save billions of dollars, sparing the state from making devastating cuts to schools, prisons and health care for years to come.

On the face of it, the Constitution’s language would seem to give the advantage to unions and retirees who have challenged the law, and Shapiro fielded far tougher questions than the opposing lawyers did. But there is a clear path to findingthe lawconstitutional, and Shapiro made the case well.

Justice Robert R. Thomas raised a concern that allowing Illinois toinvoke its police powers to modify an otherwise ironclad pension benefit would give the state license to amend any contract. That’s not a danger. To invoke police powers, the state must prove there is a “substantial emergency” and prove its actions are “appropriate,” Shapiro said.

And what should be made of the state’s role in creating this crisis, underfunding pensions for decades even before the Great Recession dealt them a devastating blow? That’s an issue for a lower court to decide — does the fiscal crisis justify pension changes — if and when the high court rules the pension clause is not absolute.

But let’s understand this: Without pension reform, Illinois will be forced to gut spending on just about everything else. Without pension reform, Illinois will be a failed state among the 50 states.

The crisis is real, and the solution is constitutionally justified. Something’s got to give.

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