EDITOR’S NOTE: Read the entire Illinois Supreme Court decision at the bottom of this article.
SPRINGFIELD — The Illinois Supreme Court on Friday struck down a 2013 law that sought to fix the nation’s worst government-employee pension crisis, a ruling that forces the state to find another way to overcome a massive budget deficit.
In a unanimous decision, the seven justices declared the law passed 18 months ago violates the state constitution because it would leave pension promises “diminished or impaired.”
“In enacting the provisions, the General Assembly overstepped the scope of its legislative power. This court is therefore obligated to declare those provisions invalid,” Justice Lloyd Karmeier said in writing the court’s opinion.
Rauner budget depended on pension reform
The decree puts new Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner and Democrats who control the General Assembly back at the starting line in trying to figure out how to wrestle down a $111 billion deficit in what’s necessary to cover its state employee retirement obligations. The hole is so deep the state has in recent years had to reserve up to $7 billion — or one-fifth of its operating funds — to keep pace.
In fact the court, in its opinion, took to task the General Assembly for its role in leading to the pension precipice.
“The General Assembly may find itself in crisis, but it is a crisis which other public pension systems managed to avoid and . . . it is a crisis for which the General Assembly itself is largely responsible,” the unanimous opinion states.
Most states faced the same public employee pension crisis, exacerbated by the Great Recession, and took steps to remedy the problem. But Illinois balked for years at addressing the crisis until former Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn and fellow Democrats who control the General Assembly overcame opposition from union allies and struck the deal, amid warnings that it might not pass constitutional muster.
After the changes were adopted in December 2013, retired employees, state-worker labor unions and others filed a lawsuit seeking to invalidate the law on constitutional grounds. The high court opinion means the state must keep its pledge on pensions.
“Our goal from the beginning of our work on pension reform has been to strike a very careful, very important balance between protecting the hard-earned investments of state workers and retirees and the equally important investments of all taxpayers in education, human and social services, health care and other vital state priorities. In its ruling today, the Supreme Court struck down not only the law but the core of that balance,” state Rep. Elaine Nekritz, D-Northbrook. “Now our already dire pension problem will get that much worse and our options in striking that balance are limited. Our path forward from here is now much more difficult, and every direction will be more painful than the balance we struck in Senate Bill 1.”
Chicago lawyers predict doom from ruling
It would have crimped pensions perks in several ways in an effort to erase the shortfall by 2044. Perhaps most significantly, it would have erased the 3 percent compounded cost-of-living adjustment added in 1989, replacing it with a formula that gave the increases on a portion of benefits, depending on years of service. Some would have had the option of freezing their pensions and contributing to a 401(k)-style plan.
It also would have delayed the retirement age for workers aged 45 and younger, on a sliding scale. Workers would have had to contribute 1 percent less to their retirements and the pension agencies would have been allowed to sue the state if it didn’t contribute its full annual portion to the funds. Those were additions to help the matter survive a court challenge.
At the March argument before the high court, the opponents to the law argued that the constitution’s language was clear — promised pensions could not be reduced.
State lawyers contended the government had the right to exercise “police powers” in time of crisis, and that the 2008 recession, which decimated retirement fund investment portfolios, provided the crisis. But under close questioning from the bench, the state’s lawyer acknowledged that past governors and legislatures shorted pension payments to save money in the short term.
Ty Fahner, president of the Commercial Club of Chicago’s Civic Committee, said the decision leaves the state’s leaders with much work to be done.
“There are no winners today,” Fahner said in a written statement. “If there’s any good news, it’s that Chicago and Illinois are resilient, and we’ve responded to great challenges before. The Civic Committee stands ready to work with Governor Rauner and the General Assembly to craft a bipartisan solution to rescue the state from financial collapse and restore Illinois as a compassionate and competitive state.”
JOHN O’CONNOR, Associated Press