Proposed Illinois amendment raises questions of how useful it will be

October 30, 2012

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Illinois voters who take to the polls will get the chance to weigh in on the hottest issue in Illinois politics this year: pensions.

When voters get their ballots this year, the first thing they’ll see at the top won’t be the presidential candidates. Instead they’ll see a proposed change to the state constitution. Currently, increasing pension benefits to state employees takes a simple majority of legislative support. This amendment would require three fifths majority. It comes as legislators are also trying to find ways to pay for the state’s 83 billion dollars in unfunded pension obligations.

"We want to protect against the kind of votes that helped us get into this mess in the first place," said Democratic State Rep. Elaine Nekritz, who sits on the Personnel and Pensions Committee.

She said bills might get a closer look if legislators need three fifths majority approval.

In fact, the amendment was so popular among legislators, only two out a total 166 voted against the measure.

Democratic State Sen. Michael Frerichs was one of those two No votes.

"I think this amendment is poorly worded and it’s open to many different interpretations," he said.

Frerichs said the amendment is vague and no one is talking about increasing pension benefits right now. And even though he didn’t have many legislators agreeing with him, there are plenty of groups that do business with the state that want voters to say No to the amendment; groups on both sides of the aisle.

But regardless of who is for the amendment or against it, Laurence Msall, the head of The Civic Federation, a government budget watchdog group, said what the amendment doesn’t address is the real problem.

"The problem isn’t how many people are voting for pension enhancements in Springfield. The problem is nobody’s voting to fully fund the pensions or to amend and reform the pensions at a level that’s sustainable for the State of Illinois," Msall said. "It’s a confusion and unnecessary obfuscation of the state’s responsibilities for the pension."

Msall also said the amendment is like closing the gate after the horse has left the barn, since a lot of votes that increased pension benefits in the past already had the three-fifths majority.