As I listened to Wednesday’s proceedings before the state Supreme Court, I thought of the half a million men and women whose Illinois public pension is both their life savings and an earned promise to retire with dignity. They include current and former teachers, police, nurses, corrections officers, child protection workers, and countless others who serve the people of our state. Their average pension is just $32,000 a year, and since 80 percent of Illinois public employees aren’t eligible for Social Security, that pension is often their only source of income in retirement.
I thought about all the years those employees faithfully paid into their retirement funds. Meanwhile, politicians had shirked their responsibility, shorting payments to avoid spending cuts or revenue increases that would have more responsibly balanced budgets.
And I recalled how that steady neglect became a direct strike in 2013 when legislators, citing the very debt they created, passed a law to strip pensions of a third of their value. Particularly for a retired person with no Social Security to fall back on, that can be a recipe for poverty as they grow older.
When the hearing was over, I stood with a crowd of retirees. Among them was Becky Spinner, who worked more than 20 years for state government, mostly investigating fraud in the food stamp program — to ensure that families in need get the assistance they deserve. “I worked to stop fraud,” Becky said, “but now it seems like the politicians were the ones running the scheme, and the victims are workers and retirees like me.”
That’s not just unfair, it’s unconstitutional. The framers of our state’s guiding document wisely foresaw the situation we’re in today, where politicians who caused the mess claim the cleanup requires retirees to bear the heavy costs of fixing it. To prevent that from happening, the Constitution includes a pension protection clause that’s clear, strong and without exception.
A circuit court rightly invoked that clause to overturn the pension cuts, deeming the law “void in its entirety.” I’m confident the Supreme Court will reach the same conclusion.
When that happens, we’ll have more work to do. Our unions are fighting for the modest life savings of working people, for the integrity of the Constitution and for simple fairness. We want a real solution to the pension funding problem, and we’ll work with anyone of good will to develop it.
Michael T. Carrigan is president of the Illinois AFL-CIO