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State Politics Thu Mar 21 2013

Pension Reform Passes, for Now

The Illinois House of Representatives passed what many legislators deem a major step for pension reform today.

But while House Republican Leader Tom Cross (also a co-author of the bill, along with Rep. Elaine Nekritz) called it "the meat and potatoes of pension reform," it doesn't seem so clear that today's step is actually one in the right direction.

The Illinois pension problem has heated up in a major way over the past several weeks, with Standard & Poor downgrading the state's credit rating back in January and the SEC announcing charges against the state for misleading bond investors regarding the implications of unfunded pension obligations. Some lawmakers have even called for--gasp--skipping the upcoming break from session in order to settle the pension mess.

But while today's bill has the right idea (i.e. something has to happen), it doesn't seem likely that the bill will make it past (1) the Senate or (2) the Supreme Court. Yesterday, the Senate shot down a bill that was similarly far-reaching regarding pension reform. And even if the bill does pass the Senate, as CapitolFax guru Rich Miller put it on Monday, the Nekritz-Cross pension bill "makes almost no pretensions of being constitutional."

For a reminder, here's what the Illinois Constitution has to say about it: "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."

This is what legislative hell looks like. On one hand, the pension system needs reform, or it's going to cut into everything else Illinois wants to do. (See: "Education." More specifically, see: "The education system is in a bad way already.") On the other hand, the solutions on the table are either short-term fixes or they just aren't constitutional.

Over the half-century history of Illinois's pension issue, it's been a bit like the scene in Austin Powers where the guard just won't get out of the way of the steamroller. The House keeps yelling "STOOOOOOOPPPP!!!" even as the steamroller inches closer.

 
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