Amendment 1 would guarantee Illinois’ sky-high debt, taxes would rise faster
Unfair advantages for public sector unions are already driving Illinois’ massive debt and high taxes. Enshrining their power in the Illinois Constitution would make it worse and give voters less say about government costs.
Illinois has a chance to lead the nation in voter suppression on Nov. 8: Change the Illinois Constitution to give union bosses more power than elected representatives, and the state’s voters lose a lot of say over policy and their pocketbooks.
Voters are being asked to pass Amendment 1, a constitutional change that would grant unions in Illinois more extreme powers than any other labor provisions in the country. The amendment would muzzle the voice of voters and give government unions more power over state law than lawmakers. It would also guarantee the state’s pension-driven debt and the high taxes needed to pay for it continue to increase.
According to numbers from Truth in Accounting, the state’s bills totaled more than $272 billion in fiscal year 2020. Almost $213 billion, or nearly 80%, of that total is owed to public sector unions through pension debt and other post-employment benefits such as retiree health care benefits.
Unfunded liabilities for government worker benefits such as pensions and health care already make up the largest share of most of the state’s total debt burdens. When the power of government unions increases, the share of state debt stemming from government worker benefits tends to as well. Government unions often have an unfair advantage at the bargaining table that allows them to extract excessive resources from taxpayers, because they bargain with politicians they help elect.
In fact, across all 50 states the share of government debt owing to government worker benefits has a very strong statistical tie to the overall amount of debt per taxpayer. In other words, when unions own most of the debt, there tends to be a lot more debt.
According to standard conventions in social science, a correlation coefficient of 0.3 or higher is considered “moderately strong” while anything above 0.7 is “very strong.” The percentage of states’ debt related to pension or government worker health insurance benefits correlates with states’ total debt per taxpayer ranking at 0.83.
As Illinois’ debt burden has continued to climb in recent years, taxes have continued to rise despite Illinoisans already facing one of the highest tax burdens in the country. There have been 24 new taxes and fees implemented in Illinois since the beginning of Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s administration, taking another $5.2 billion out of Illinoisans’ wallets. Despite paying more and more, taxpayers have been losing services while unions continue to win more of the money.
From 2000 to 2021, research from the Illinois Policy Institute showed state spending on public sector union benefits grew far faster than other spending and crowded out growth in spending on everything other than K-12 education.
During that time, pension spending increased 533%, adjusted for inflation, while spending on government worker health insurance rose 126%. Spending on education rose just 23%. Spending on all other services shrank 14%.
Illinois taxpayers are being asked to pay more for union benefits even as they experience cuts to the services and programs they rely on.
Public sector unions have been exploiting their unfair bargaining advantage to inflate wages and benefits at huge costs to Illinois taxpayers. State workers in Illinois are the second-highest paid in the country, with an average wage of over $67,400 after adjusting for regional costs of living. The unfair bargaining relationship between unions and the politicians whose campaigns they fund leaves taxpayers with no seat at the table. It has also helped public sector wages grow 60% faster than private sector wages from 1998 to 2019.
In 1998, the gap in average total compensation between public and private sector workers, which includes benefits such as health insurance, was less than $10,000. By 2019, that gap had more than tripled to over $35,500, with average state workers in Illinois compensated more than $94,000 for their work versus under $59,000 for private sector workers.
Illinois taxpayers are left footing the bill for those huge increases in public worker compensation, even as the state’s debt and taxes have soared and services have been cut.
Skyrocketing compensation is not the only cost unions have thrust upon Illinois taxpayers in recent years. Their influence has bought numerous perks and giveaways, including overly generous compensation beyond salary, providing more holidays than there are federal holidays, 15 different types of leave time and extremely lax disciplinary measures that allow for numerous infractions before suspension from work or termination.
Another great perk public unions have created that private sector counterparts do not enjoy is early retirement. More than 50% of state workers and teachers will retire before age 60. Taking advantage of early retirement benefits, large portions of these employees will retire prior to age 55. Many of them can do this because paltry worker pension contributions of just 5% can lead to pension payouts from $1.7 million to $3.6 million depending on the category of public employee. These perks contribute to the compounding of pension debt, exponentially driving up costs to taxpayers and causing the crowd out of other programs and services in the state’s strained budgets.
A key reason for the huge growth in public worker wages is the inherently unfair advantage public sector unions have, given they can and do elect their bosses. Unions send significant political donations and other resources to the campaigns of favorable politicians, often resulting in union representatives sitting across the negotiating table from their hand-picked elected officials. It’s like being able to pick your best friend for your performance review at work, who will determine how much you will get paid and what benefits you will receive.
Illinois politicians have been eager to give taxpayer money to unions in exchange for their political support. Unions donated more than $15 million to the campaigns of the lawmakers who voted to put Amendment 1 on the ballot. That figure averaged out to $119,000 per vote in favor of placing the amendment on the ballot. Lawmakers who voted against putting it on the ballot averaged just $9,300 in union contributions.
Amendment 1 means Illinois’ $317 billion pension debt will continue to balloon while hurting the state economy and job growth and driving more people out of Illinois. It means the state’s high state and local tax burden will continue to increase to pay for union demands that have already risen beyond what taxpayers can afford, while spending on vital programs continues to fall. It means the power of the typical taxpayer will be permanently diminished by making unions unelected, dominant partners in wielding power with politicians.
Amendment 1 represents not only the continuation, but the escalation of a status quo Illinoisans cannot afford to maintain. In short, Amendment 1 means union bosses and their politician partners will win while every other Illinoisan loses.
Fortunately, voters will have the last word on the issue Nov. 8.