SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) — The passage of a landmark bill to address Illinois’ worst-in-the-nation pension crisis means the year-long fight over how to address the massive shortfall now likely shifts to the courts, where its fate — and much-needed relief for the financially troubled state — remains highly uncertain.
Lawmakers approved a measure Tuesday to eliminate the $100 billion unfunded pension liability by cutting benefits for workers and retirees. Public-employee unions promised quick legal action if Gov. Pat Quinn signs the bill, which the Chicago Democrat said he will do “promptly.”
The unions argue that the legislation violates a provision of the state constitution that says pension benefits may not be diminished. They criticized lawmakers who voted yes for approving a bill they say is clearly unconstitutional.
“A majority of legislators ignored and defied their oaths of office today — but Governor Pat Quinn doesn’t have to. He can stay true to his oath and the legal promise made to public employees and retirees by vetoing this unfair, unconstitutional bill,” a coalition of unions known as We Are One Illinois said in an emailed statement. “If he doesn’t, our union coalition will have no choice but to seek to uphold the Illinois Constitution and protect workers’ life savings through legal action.”
But Quinn said he believes the legislation is constitutional and will be upheld by the Illinois Supreme Court.
“It is necessary for the economic good for the people of our state, and I think the court will see it that way,” he said.
Senate President John Cullerton, meanwhile, said the legislation will provide an important test case.
“You can’t find out about the constitutionality of the bill until it’s actually passed,” Cullerton said.
From California to Rhode Island, a number of states have dealt with similar pension troubles — many of which have also wound up in the courts, and with differing outcomes.
Illinois’ Democrat-controlled Legislature has notably lagged behind in finding the political will to deal with its ballooning financial problem. Meanwhile, annual pension payments grew to about one-fifth of the state’s general funds budget, taking money away from schools, roads and other areas.
The measure approved Tuesday emerged last week following negotiations by a bipartisan pension conference committee and then meetings of Illinois’ legislative leaders. They say it will save the state $160 billion over 30 years and fully fund the systems by 2044.