Illinois Supreme Court: Nothing is more important than government workers’ right to your tax dollars

Illinois Supreme Court: Nothing is more important than government workers’ right to your tax dollars

In their SB 1 ruling, Illinois Supreme Court justices indicate that paying for pensions is more important than funding core government services.

Today the Illinois Supreme Court unanimously struck down Senate Bill 1, the pension-reform law former Gov. Pat Quinn signed in 2013. The act’s modest reforms to government workers’ pension benefits would have reduced annual increases in retirees’ benefits, raised the retirement age for younger government workers and put a (generous) cap on pensionable salaries.

The court ruled that even those relatively minor changes violate the state constitution’s pension clause, which says that “[m]embership in a pension or retirement system of the State . . . shall be an enforceable contractual relationship, the benefits of which shall not be diminished or impaired.”

The court rejected the state’s argument that its police powers allowed it to make those changes to avoid the fiscal and economic disaster that will occur if the state cannot bring its pension costs under control. The pension clause doesn’t include any exceptions, the court said, so there are no exceptions.

What about the possibility that pension spending could crowd out spending on core state services related to public safety? The court explicitly considered this and said, in effect, too bad: the law is the law.

Supreme Court justices are rarely, if ever, so strict when private citizens’ constitutional rights are at stake.

Whether we like it or not, the courts generally do not consider any constitutional right to be absolute. Free speech, gun rights, the right to earn a living – state and local governments  can violate all of these if the courts think they have a good enough reason, and they often do.

So today’s decision on pension rights essentially means that, in Illinois, government employees’ “right” to ever-increasing pension benefits gets stronger protection than any constitutional right the rest of us have.

Amazingly, the court rejected the idea that changes in benefits are necessary even to bring the state’s finances under control. After all, the court suggested, the state could just raise taxes as it did temporarily from 2011 through 2014.

Never mind that the temporary tax increase didn’t make a dent in the state’s unfunded pension liabilities. And never mind that under the tax hike, job creation slowed and taxpayers fled to other states at record rates.

Indeed, nowhere in the court’s decision is there any consideration of the millions of taxpayers – many of whom are financially struggling themselves and can’t afford to retire – who will have to pay the retirement benefits of former government workers.

Fortunately, taxpayers have a way out besides crossing the border to Indiana or Wisconsin: they can and should demand that legislators put a constitutional amendment to Illinois’ pension clause on the ballot to undo today’s disastrous decision and allow for needed reforms that are fair to everyone.

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