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Airbags

The pro and con sides of an unconventional Constitutional Convention controversy lined up, and in a balmy room at the UIC campus, they acted out a purely distilled version of a very old American debate: that between the progressive view of democracy, and a conservative view of democracy.

Organized by the UIC United chapter of the State Universities Annuitants Association (SUAA), a panel debated the pros and cons of the once-a-generation Constitutional Convention vote on Tuesday night. Representing pro were populist Lieutenant Governor Pat Quinn and ethics crusader state Representative John Fritchey (D-Chicago); on the con side were former state Senator, comptroller, and gubernatorial candidate Dawn Clark Netsch and League of Women Voters official Kathryn Nesburg. Over two hours of debate and question-and-answer led to a neat and simple line between the two sides:

Pro: If we have a constitutional convention, we could make things better.

Con: If we have a constitutional convention, we could make things worse.

Progressive and conservative in a more elevated sense — in terms of the basic view of human nature. Measured change from up top? Or dramatic change from below? Tradition or debate? Do we trust "the people"? Or do we fear "the mob?"

"I'm not scared of a constitutional convention. I'm not scared of my friends and neighbors," Rep. Fritchey said. Should he be?

When Illinois' framers (including one Dawn Clark Netsch) got together some 40 years ago to write the current constitution, they did so because Illinois' "horse-and-buggy" constitution, at that point a century old, was making it nearly impossible to effectively conduct the business of the state. To prevent that from happening again, they wisely inserted a clause that required voters in every generation to either request or refuse a new constitutional convention. This year, voters will see the question at the top of their ballot — should Illinois convene a constitutional convention?

If they say yes, the legislature will be forced to set a framework for an election of delegates, by state Senate district, to a convention in Springfield that would reopen the entire Illinois constitution for restructuring, rewriting, revising. Whatever these delegates come up with would then be put to the voters, who could either affirm or deny it.

Special interest groups of all stripes have arrayed against the "Con-Con," arguing that it would be a mess, that it would accomplish little, and that most importantly it would add to current gridlock as legislators waited to see the results (which could take years to finalize). The disinterested parties backing the Alliance to Protect the Illinois Constitution — disinterested parties like the Illinois Chamber of Commerce, the Illinois Manufacturers Association, the Illinois AFL-CIO, and the Farm Bureau — argue that if you want change in Springfield so bad, vote the bums out! They fret that a constitutional convention would lead to Illinois' sterling bill of rights being compromised by "single-issue" special interest groups.

Just to be clear, those special interest groups are arguing that a constitutional convention would be dominated by special interest groups.

Ms. Netsch echoed that concern at the debate on Tuesday, pointing out that currently Illinois has one of the best and most comprehensive bills of rights in the country, including an equal rights amendment. Opening the constitution up would potentially place that at risk. Furthermore, she argued, the "ballot initiative" process championed by populists tends to become an avenue for well-organized hot-button issue specialists, thus the flood of same-sex marriage and adoption, gun rights and abortion rights ballot questions that other states deal with constantly. The odds are, an open ballot initative process would hardly give voice to "the people" regarding process issues, but rather would create just another avenue for well-organized and well-financed special interests.

The con side takes an essentially pessimistic view of people: that given power, they are more likely to fumble than score. Ms. Nesburg followed with a powerful argument herself: that the problem with Illinois government is not the constitution, but the leadership. The failure of political leadership has no relationship to how legally and politically sound the Illinois Constitution, as written, is. The ballot box, in other words, is a more dexterous tool than the plebiscite.

That's a good argument, certainly better than the sloganeering being offered by the "Alliance" (though, with that roster of special interests, perhaps they should go by "the Empire" in this scenario), and one that should be seriously pondered over. Every time our political leadership fails us, should we go and re-write the constitution, recall the governor, whatever? Or should we be more responsible, deliberative — conservative — and strive for the incremental change that over long periods of time can lead to qualitative differences?

There is another practical argument against the Con-Con, enunciated by Netsch: that there simply has not been enough public education for a constitutional convention to go well. Natch.

Unfortunately, the opposition arguments beg themselves. All of Illinois' most powerful special interests — not a judgment, just a fact — take a break from fighting each other in lobbyist proxy wars to oppose a Constitutional Convention on the grounds that any such convention would be dominated by them themselves. That such thoughtful and brilliant fellow-travelers as Dawn Clark Netsch buy and repeat such an argument doesn't make it better, only more revealing: have we really lost our nerve that much?

Are we so resigned to the status quo that we think picking a fight isn't worth it? Are we so certain of "the people's" impotence that we don't even bother to challenge power any longer?

And, to paraphrase Fritchey, have we come to the point that we are afraid of our neighbors?

Or, could real democracy unleash the creative powers of the people of Illinois — "the people" who politicians are always so ready to praise in campaign language but in whom they apparently have little or no confidence?

Can the Illinois Chamber of Commerce really have the gall to advocate constantly for "free markets" on the belief that the marketplace of ideas and competition will lead to the best results, but then argue that an open political process would lead to domination by an oligarchy?

Can the largest institutions of the labor movement really argue that in this one instance, speaking truth to power will only result in power consolidating, so well enough should be left alone?

Coming from The Empire, arguing against a Con-Con because of the potential for special interests to dominate it doesn't sound like an argument at all, but rather a threat. I don't know about you, but that doesn't sit well with me.

Obviously, just the fact that special interests (and, again, even though the term "special interests" has a negative connotation, it is not inherently negative) oppose a Con-Con is not reason enough to turn around and support it, unless you're one of those annoying contrarians who pretends LPs sound better than digital music. Besides, those special interests probably know the constitution better than most of our sitting legislators, whose knowledge of it is very likely limited to the snippets they read in directives they get from the Speaker's office. Also, as I'm sure some readers will point out to me, I have spent considerable column space defending many of the "special interests" who have joined with The Empire.

So what gives?

The arguments for a Con-Con seem to be stronger. First, it is nonsensical to believe that we should avoid a Con-Con because the special interests that control our political process would also control the delegates. The state of our politics is such that big money and vested interests have come to a pretty comprehensive domination over the legislative and administrative process. That's not good.

Second, there is a practical problem to consider, which is that people are disaffected but change does not come. The solution available to us have not worked. Governor Blagojevich seems to constantly be one grand jury empanelment away from the hoosegow, where he would bunk up with the previous governor, of the other party. Disaffection is not recent, but systemic. If the tools available to Illinoisans were effective, why haven't they worked to date?

Because Illinoisans are dumb? Don't care? Secretly love our political-wild-west reputation and the immense waste, fraud and corruption scandals that come in increasingly high-frequency waves? This is a "pro" argument that just repeats a "con" argument: the current Constitution has all these various elements voters could use to stop what has been now nearly 20 years of clubby, hierarchical domination of the people's government. So why is it still so rancid?

The single most effective point raised, to my reckoning, was that the constitution could be retooled to finally destroy the incumbency advantage that keeps our democracy from being truly competitive — and therefore value-creating — system in our state. By taking the electeds out of the redistricting process, we end the charade whereby politicians pick us, rather than us picking them.

Lieutenant Governor Quinn spoke in strident terms against the rumors regarding the possibility of public employees losing their pensions. "The federal constitution precludes that," he said, "It's fear-mongering." He was referring to Article 1 Section 10 of the US Constitution, which prohibits states from any action that would impair the enforcement of contracts. Since pension obligations are defined as contractual by the current state constitution, the fear is that a Con-Con could change that definition and thus make the pensions non-contractual. The facts contradict the rumor (what a surprise); the Constitution and federal case law (stemming from a case originating in Rhode Island) protect anybody with a state pension in Illinois. The only at-risk group would be people hired by the state subsequent to the Con-Con, and even then only if that one element of the constitution is changed. I may be wrong about the legalities here, and would welcome a factual correction, but from what I can find it appears to be the case.

Quinn also used recent outrages to illustrate the deeper point that current gridlock and corruption is a graver threat to pensions, referring once to former state Senator Carol Ronen's suspiciously short stint (60 days) in the executive branch upon her retirement from the state Senate. As far as stints go, this was particularly lucrative, as it added $38,000 a year to her pension.

The constant state of affairs in Springfield is the best argument that the extant constitution could use some retooling. And if the only reasons not to convene a Con-Con are a pessimistic view of the people and a trembling fear of special interests, are those arguments we'll be willing to repeat to future generations of Illinoisans who inherit the political messes we keep tut-tutting without action?

There are risks to a Con-Con. For one thing, can the legislature be trusted to set reasonable parameters for the convention itself? Do we know enough to take the risk? Ms. Nesburg made the point well: "It's a Dirty Harry situation: 'Do you feel lucky?'" These are all things to be considered.

One attendee, Bryan Andres of Chicago, told me he was undecided. "Both sides are saying, 'You never know.'"

No, you never know. But you can be sure of that American philosophy, rooted in Jefferson and Paine, which says not knowing the future is an opportunity to take action and remake it. That the world belongs to the living to remake. That drastic change from below through debate is often preferable to measured change from up top.

Or do you prefer the other side, which says not knowing the future should mean caution, and measured change from up top?

Comments

Sarah / September 17, 2008 11:51 AM

Nice article, very thoughful coverage!

Jason / September 17, 2008 12:27 PM

I don't care what school of politics you adhere to, we need this convention to move forward. It represents the people's only real chance of dislodging even a smidgen of the corruption that is making this town unlivable.

Andrew / September 17, 2008 12:31 PM

Jason, I'm not sure how much a Con-Con would affect city politics, unless it was used to directly address Chicago -- which would be unlikely to be accepted at the state level.

Jeff / September 17, 2008 1:45 PM

Andrew, A con-con could be used to eliminate automatic home rule taxing authority and therefore tax increases would have to be placed on a ballot instead of voted on by Stroger and his cronies or Daley and his.

Bill / September 17, 2008 3:13 PM

One of Fritchey's neighbors is Rod Blagojevich. Maybe he should be a little afriad of some of them.

Bruno Behrend / September 17, 2008 3:37 PM

Dittos on the quality of this article.

"Yes" offers the opportunity for change, and "No" offers only the status quo.

If you want to help, do something to inform your precinct/group.

Also, find 2 good delegates in you senate district, and have them start the process of running by advocating for this NOW!

More video and debate here.

Greg Pierce / September 17, 2008 3:48 PM

Best analysis of the constitutional convention issue I have seen yet. United Power for Action and Justice is organizing a rally in favor of a "yes" vote on the constitutional convention for Sunday, October 12 at 3:00 at St. Ignatius High School. For further info, go to www.conconillinois.com.

sue / September 17, 2008 8:37 PM

Teachers are told to vote against this for fear their pensions would be in jeopardy. Teachers should know their pension are jeopardized right now with the corruption.

Ramsin / September 17, 2008 9:12 PM

I'm not sure how much of that is valid concern about the future of the contractual nature of state pensions, and how much of it is fear-mongering because the system is Springfield has been mastered by the large special interest institutions.

As an unashamed labor movement acolyte, I hope its the former. But that would still be no excuse for sloganeering.

Charlotte / September 17, 2008 9:52 PM

Ramsin, you didn't mention much here about the likelihood of who would be elected as delegates. One of the biggest arguments against a Con-Con is that the delegate elections would be run similarly to election of Democratic Committeemen in Chicago. Already elected officials would have the name recognition, fundraising and organizing prowess and connections needed to get themselves elected delegate. The pro con-con contingent likes to tout a con-con as "by the people, for the people", but how likely is that if the deck is stacked against ordinary citizens being elected delegates? While it is true that initiatives will be placed in binding referenda on the ballot "for the people to decide", it's dishonest for pro con-con folks like Pat Quinn to paint a picture of pure, progressive democracy in the form of a con-con. If we can count on the same old hacks running the show (and we CAN), a certain element of pure democracy is certainly lost.

At this time, I am unenthusiastically pro con-con, for the reasons suggested above. It's a good idea and we should do it, but I refuse to pretend that anything revolutionary will come of it. I would be much more enthusiastic about the process if all elected officials and committeemen would recuse themselves from any hand whatsoever in the delegate selection process.

Dr. Lora Chamberlain / September 17, 2008 11:46 PM

Kudos on your summary of the issues around the Con-Con! Just a note though about the possible delegates. In 1970, there were large delegate fields in many of the races for the delegate positions to the Constitutional Convention, if this is repeated it would offer a rich tapestry of debate on reforms throughout Illinois. Something desperately needed in this state with such a culture of corruption and cronyism. Do not underestimate the ability of smart citizen reform minded delegates to actually pull off some upsets from the establishment candidates. Remember there will be no incumbents. The members of the GA and other state, city, and county officials may want to run but now that double dipping has become such an issue in this state, will they want to take on the double work for minimal or no pay? Could they handle the added workload along with their present schedules, very doubtful. In 1970, with a much less significant General Assembly schedule, only 2 members of the GA were delegates. Illinois, let's have a Con-Con and let's vote for intelligent citizen delegates who are not associated with any current government officials and get for ourselves some real fresh air blowing through this state!

Kenzo / September 18, 2008 9:01 AM

At the September 3rd Chicago Teachers Union (CTU)House of Delegates Meeting, Ed Geppert, President of the IFT was a guest speaker who advocated against the Con-Con. CTU President Marilyn Stewart echoed his sentiments. They both cited the danger a Con Con will have on teacher pensions. Geppert also mentioned that the effort will cost taxpayers $100 million.

Neither presidents could explain exactly why a Con Con would immediately put teacher pensions at risk.

One delegate asked for clarification and was basically told that it's a clear issue and that teachers should oppose Con-Con.

The assumption that the delegates (many of whom have earned multiple advanced degrees) could not possible understand the nuances in the issue, so the party line was Con-Con=being broke in your twilight years.

Was Stewart afraid that the delegates to the Con-Con would come from her school of ethics?

Is this a case of the wolf that called wolf?

Joel S. Hirschhorn / September 18, 2008 9:54 AM

How to Celebrate Constitution Day

Joel S. Hirschhorn

Today, September 17 is Constitution Day, but very, very few Americans know this or will celebrate it. If you think of yourself as a politically engaged, civic-minded and patriotic American, then I urge you to celebrate today by expanding your mind about a critically important but never-used part of our Constitution.

All you have to do is go to www.foavc.org the site of Friends of the Article V Convention and spend some time learning the truth about the option given to us by the Framers because they anticipated that Americans would lose trust and confidence in the federal government. That day has surely arrived. So I beg you to suspend your current beliefs and fears and open your mind to learning the truth about this option.

An Article V convention was envisioned as a temporary fourth branch of the federal government that, once convened, was not under the control of Congress, the President or the Supreme Court. The convention of state delegates could only propose constitutional amendments, just as Congress has done during our history, and like those they would have to be ratified by three-quarters of the states.

So why have we never had an Article V convention?

Congress has refused to obey the Constitution and the oath of office by not respecting the one and only requirement for a convention given in Article V. That is applications from two-thirds of the states. Well, here is an indisputable fact that you can verify by going to www.foavc.org: there have been over 600 such state applications and our group is the first and only group to make these available to the public (our job of posting these is not quite yet complete).

Why has Congress refused to allow us to have an Article V convention? They and all established political interests on the left and right fear direct democracy as manifest through such a convention. They fear many kinds of constitutional amendments that are the only way to obtain major, systemic political reforms. Many examples of possible amendments are on our site, though our organization does not advocate for any amendment, staying totally committed to a nonpartisan advocacy to compel Congress to grant us the first Article V convention.

Want to rid the political system of corruption by moneyed interests? Then contemplate an amendment that would remove all private money from all political campaigns and activities, replacing it with strict and pure public financing. This approach has been called Clean Money/Clean Elections and has worked when adopted by several states.

Want to eliminate the perverse impacts of using the Electoral College for presidential elections? Then contemplate an amendment replacing it with the popular vote.

Want to reduce the excessive powers accumulated by the presidency? Then think about an amendment prohibiting presidential signing statements that undermine the legislative actions of Congress, and also making unconstitutional for Congress to, in any way, transfer its power and authority to declare war to the president.

Not only go to www.foavc.org to expand your knowledge, please consider becoming a member of our organization so that we become strong enough to impose effective pressure on Congress to obey the Constitution. What a fine way to celebrate Constitution Day.

[Joel S. Hirschhorn is a co-founder of Friends of the Article V Convention.]

Ramsin / September 18, 2008 10:05 AM

Would I be jinxing it if I pointed out this is the longest a comment thread had gotten on one of my columns while maintaining civility?

And Kenzo, the answer to your question is, "Yes."

Reality Check / September 18, 2008 10:35 AM

I'm not sure how much of that is valid concern about the future of the contractual nature of state pensions, and how much of it is fear-mongering because the system is Springfield has been mastered by the large special interest institutions. As an unashamed labor movement acolyte, I hope its the former. But that would still be no excuse for sloganeering.

An acolyte? Is that kind of like a friend? Because with friends like you, working people certainly don't need enemies.

Unions are "large special-interest institutions"?

Concern about preserving the constitutional guarantee against diminishment of public-employee pensions is "fear-mongering"?

What right-wing taskmaster has implanted vapid talking points in your brain?

Of course pension benefits provided to teachers and state and university employees are governed by union contracts--for those who are represented by a union. As you (should) know there are tens of thousands of educational, state and university employees who do not have a union and thus no such protections.

As you (should) also know, union contracts typically govern just a couple of years, then are renegotiated. So the employer (be it a school district, university or constitutional officer) can (and does) seek changes to the pension provisions under those contracts.

The strongest protection all educational, university and state workers have to ensure their retirement security is the CONSTITUTIONAL GUARANTEE that current employee and retiree PENSIONS MAY NOT BE REDUCED.

This guarantee prevents employers from cutting pensions at the bargaining table and the General Assembly from doing so by law.

If you think that eliminating this constitutional protection would not be among the top priorities of right-wing and business groups in any Con-Con, you are extremely naive.

The concern of the Illinois AFL-CIO, its constituent unions and their members is well placed.

Ramsin / September 18, 2008 11:22 AM

And, reality check, if this is the way you attack people who have written and advocated for labor for years, its no wonder labor has such a hard time keeping friends. Did you really just call me an enemy to working people? Do you think that will make anybody reading this take your position seriously? Or just confirm the accusation of sloganeering?

However much this may blow your mind, and maybe that of your fellow staffers, loyalty to the labor movement does not mean uncritical loyalty to union leadership, or uncritical agreement with every single position a union takes. Ask the CNA and SEIU staffers.

Anyway, to your point, you could have achieved more by reading the article, particularly the passage that says I would welcome a factual correction of the pension-contractual relationship issue.

Unfortunately, you didn't bother to offer the factual correction, which I'm waiting for, as are the readers. Rewriting the constitution to impact the contractual nature of the pensions that currently exist would seem to contravene Article I Section 10 of the federal constitution, as the McGrath vs. Rhode Island Retirement Board decision seems to have affirmed. Extant pensions were defined as contractual, and so are protected. So extant pensions don't seem to be in any way under risk. Do you have a factual correction to offer that would make your point?

Or, you could accuse the guy who just last week was called a communist for advocating for just-cause rights in Illinois of having been dragooned into right wing servitude. What do you think?

Do you think maybe other readers whose minds aren't made up may have taken you more seriously if you had offered a factual correction without baseless ad hominems?

Yes, I do know what would be at the top of the right-wing's list for attack in a constitutional convention. Your distaste for the right wing doesn't seem to extend to joining coalitions with them. Seeing the names of several of the largest and most progressive unions alongside the Chamber of Commerce and Manufacturer's Association sure warmed my heart.

So why did THEY join the Alliance, Reality Check? Because they're worried about pension protections?

Or are they worried about what the left-wing would do?

If they are so eager to destroy those contractual protections, why aren't they advocating FOR a Con-Con? Clearly that's at the top of their list. So what gives?

Illinois' organized right wing is bantam weight. They've shown no evidence that they can organize their way out of a wet paper bag. Given the mobilization of public employees against this Con-Con, I think I would bet on them within that setting, too.

I also hope you aren't going to play this game where you pretend that unions aren't special interest groups. Of course they are--they happen to be progressive, beneficial, and socially essential special interest groups that I support whole-heartedly, but they are by any reasonable definition a "special interest" group. Pretending that I meant something negative by that just makes you seem even more unserious.

Again, you would have done well to recognize what I went through pains to point out in the column, that "special interest" is a technical, not critical, appellation.

But then, you couldn't be bothered in your rush to accuse me of carrying water for my sleeper-cell right wing handlers.

But, brother, I don't hold a grudge. We're all brothers and sisters in labor--so do you have a factual correction to offer? Is it false that Article I.10 and the McGrath decision would protect public workers (even the non-union ones) whose pensions when created were defined by the Illinois Constitution as contractual? If it is, I have the intellectual honesty to change my position, but I wonder--do you?

And if you don't, why should anybody listen to you?

Reality Check / September 18, 2008 12:59 PM

Public and private sector pensions all over this country are constitutionally/statutorally "guaranteed" to the extent they are insured by the PBGC. Unfortunately that federal body pays pennies on the dollar to retirees whose corporate employers have chucked their pension funds overboard or gone bankrupt with current and former employees left holding the bag.

The Illinois constitution provides much stronger protection for public-sector pensions in this state. Article 13, section 5 provides that public-employee pensions "shall not be diminished or impaired."

With respect to your defense of using the term "special interest" to apply to unions, I guess I am not so cavalier about the popular and emotional connotation of words as opposed to their literal or intended meaning. That is to say, "special interest" is almost always used and meant as a pejorative, so if a negative connotation is not intended, better not to use it at all.

You also accused the unions and their members of "fear-mongering" in their concern for preserving this constitutional guarantee of undiminished pensions. I take that as a pretty pejorative phrase, too.

Finally, if you truly believe that "Illinois' organized right wing is bantam weight" when it comes to their opposition to public-sector wages and benefits, then you really are naive. Take a look at any publication or public pronouncement of the Civic Federation, the Commercial Club of Chicago, the Heartland Institute, the Illinois Policy Institute or the Illinois chapter of Americans for Prosperity (to name just a few). Look up the boards of directors of these organizations. Do a Lex-Nex on Larry Msall or Eden Martin. Read an editorial by any influential paper in Illinois starting with Mother Tribune.

I'd like to have THAT bantam weight.

Ramsin / September 18, 2008 2:41 PM

Maybe use of the term "special interest" wasn't optimal, but that is why I took pains to qualify it in the article. Obviously I don't consider labor unions to be a malignant interest.

I also have to take issue with you saying I accused rank-and-file membership of fear-mongering. I was referring to the public campaign being mounted against the Con-Con, and, again, I said it MAY be construed that way, if it is a fact that existing pensions would be safe, and I welcomed a factual correction.

Speaking of which, you still haven't quite addressed the point, either. I wasn't referring to the guarantees provided for by the PBGC (Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation), which we can all agree is hardly a guarantee at all.

I was referring to the fact that it would be unconstitutional federally to make a change to any of the existing public pensions because they are contractual in nature and Article I Section 10 of the US Constitution, and as interpreted by McGrath vs. Rhode Island Retirement Board, would preclude any changes to those pensions.

You keep ducking this point, and I think you would probably win everybody here--including me myself--over if you addressed it.

So far, you have rested your argument against Con-Con on potential risk to worker pensions. I agree that if worker pensions are threatened in any real way, we shouldn't take that gamble.

Here is the part of the Constitution you're referring to:

Article XIII
Section 5:

Membership in any pension or retirement system of the
State, any unit of local government or school district, or
any agency or instrumentality thereof
, shall be an
enforceable contractual relationship, the benefits of which shall not be diminished or impaired.

Here's the part of the US Constitution I'm referring to:

Article I
Section 10:

...No State shall enter into any Treaty, Alliance, or Confederation; grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal; coin Money; emit Bills of Credit; make any Thing but gold and silver Coin a Tender in Payment of Debts; pass any Bill of Attainder, ex post facto Law, or Law impairing the Obligation of Contracts, or grant any Title of Nobility...

The Contract Clause of the U. S. Constitution bars states from passing any law that impairs the obligation of contracts. The clause generally applies to state contracts relating to public employee pensions (McGrath v. Rhode Island Retirement Bd. , 88 F. 3d 12 (1st Cir. 1996)

Since the existing pensions are contractual, they would appear, by dint of Article I Section 10 and the subsequent Supreme Court decisions, to be protected. Now, could yet-to-be-created pensions be impacted? That is a risk and should be considered. But it appears that it is not the case that existing pensions could be impacted in any way.

Is this interpretation wrong? Please show your work.

And if it is not, your one objection appears to have failed--do you have another?

Reality Check / September 18, 2008 3:52 PM

In McGrath, the court ruled that private pension plans were "implied contracts." This decision has provided scant protection for public-employee pensions (see e.g. its failed invocation before the very same court in Transport Workers v. SEPTA).

Further, the federal Contract Clause was invoked to protect public-employee pensions in the 1937 Supreme Court case Dodge v. Board of Education. The Court ruled against plaintiffs - who just so happened to be retired teachers who had seen their pensions slashed by ... wait for it ... the City of Chicago.

So when you say, above, that "existing public pensions ... are contractual in nature," well, the courts have not found this to be true. Rather they are benefits provided by state statute - and such laws, like any other, may be repealed or otherwise changed.

So in states that lack constitutional protections like ours, lawmakers can change the laws that set out pension benefits whenever they see fit. Here, however, they cannot do so in any way that "diminishes or impairs" pension benefits of current retirees and employees.

(Benefits for future employees are not so protected - which is why the right-wing and business folks are always hot to create a new, lower tier of benefits for new hires, or to do away with defined-benefit pensions for new hires entirely and instead steer them into private 401ks - not looking so hot on Wall Street this week, is it.)

All that said, I'm no lawyer. I just don't want anybody monkeying with the Constitutional guarantee of retirement security for our teachers, child protection workers, police officers, fire fighters, etc.

Ramsin / September 18, 2008 4:30 PM

There we can agree, brother (or sister). And I know how tiered systems particularly in contracts are so dangerous for bargaining units.

It looks like somebody who is a lawyer should clarify this matter. Again, anything that puts worker pensions at serious risk is not worth undertaking--but that should be clarified.

I happen to believe that an opening of the Constitution would benefit progressive and the left because of the organizational advantages and current climate in Illinois. Just-cause employment, for example, would be an enormous dividend and potentially something that could be worked into a new Con-Con.

That said, I leave for the readers to decide on the cost/benefit of the pension issue. Until more definitive evidence is in, I'll suspend my own judgment.

Dr. Lora Chamberlain / September 18, 2008 10:37 PM

Dear Friends, Does it matter to anyone that no one has even brought up publicly that amending Article XIII, Section 5 is a necessary Constitutional reform. And can you imagine the candidate that started to talk about it on their campaign trail, they would not last a month in the race. Then let's say some anti-pensioner slipped through the cracks and actually got elected to the Con Con. Can you imagine what would happen when they bring up that particular amendment to be voted on by the rest of the delegates. Also how would they slip the Constitution with the egregious Article XIII, Section 5-rewrite past the hyperalert Unions in this state. I am convinced it is a red herring issue. The unions are blocking much needed reform, you will have to ask the leadership what their real motives are, but their major concern is too far-fetched for me to give it real weight.

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About the Author(s)

Ramsin Canon studies and works in politics in Chicago. If you have a tip, a borderline illegal leak, or a story that needs to be told, contact him at rc@gapersblock.com.

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