Add Illinois Constitution to “Not respected by Gov. Rauner” list


Our governor has a problem and he wants Congress to fix it for him.

Bruce Rauner’s problem is that he is deeply unpopular with Illinois voters.

The poll was conducted by Normington Petts and the findings were outlined in a memo released by the DGA, which show just 34 percent of likely Illinois voters approve of Rauner’s job performance while 63 percent disapprove.

Rauner, who spent most of the summer making a series of highly embarrassing hiring decisions, has decided he needs to do something to improve his numbers. So, he’s going after public employee pensions. Again.

You certainly remember that the Illinois Supreme Court sided with the public employee unions in 2015, ruling the Illinois Constitution means what it says.

"Membership in any pension or retirement system of the
State ....shall be an enforceable contractual relationship, 
the benefits of which shall not be diminished or impaired."

That seems clear, unless you are a union-hating midwestern governor.

In that case, you might latch on to a scheme promoted by the conservative Manhattan Institute which would have Congress allow the General Assembly to ignore the Illinois Constitution if pensions are placing a financial hardship on the state.

Yes, owing to the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution, Congress does have the authority to override the pension protection clause of the Illinois Constitution — the wording that says participation in a public pension system is “an enforceable contractual relationship, the benefits of which shall not be diminished or impaired.” That is, Congress can empower the Illinois legislature to make the changes to state and municipal pensions that the Illinois Supreme Court has blocked.

And yes, pensions to current and future retirees could be affected, depending on how the state legislature wants to reform the system.

The governor shared this big idea with business people recently…

The governor thinks Congress can release the state from that restriction by passing a law that would give states permission to come up with cost-saving changes to their pension programs. The option would be available to states only after they had established that spending money on workers’ retirement plans is hampering other essential services. 

After conducting hearings, a state would have to propose its changes to a court, which would hear arguments from people who would be affected. Options could include reducing benefits provided under a pension plan, changing the way benefits are calculated or limiting the number of pensions a person can collect.

This line of reasoning ignores something the Illinois Supreme Court, in 2015, did not; the state’s financial problems are self-inflicted and addressable. 

The justices went so far as to fault lawmakers for failing to keep in place a 2011 temporary income tax hike that boosted the personal tax rate to 5 percent. At the start of the year, the tax increase automatically phased down to 3.75 percent for individuals, costing the state $4 billion in annual revenue. Much of the tax increase was used to make the state’s share of pension payments during those four years.

“The General Assembly could also have sought additional tax revenue. While it did pass a temporary income tax increase, it allowed the increased rate to lapse to a lower rate even as pension funding was being debated and litigated,” Karmeier wrote.

The governor expressed hope the measure allowing Congress to tear up the state Constitution could be rolled into tax reform legislation being discussed in Washington.

Is that realistic? Perhaps not. But as the Tribune story hints, maybe that’s not the point.

Even if the appeal to the federal government goes nowhere, it allows Rauner to tell voters he has a plan for dealing with the pension problem.

While the prospects for this scheme to move forward are far from clear, there are some  things of which all Illinoisans can be certain:

The governor doesn’t respect the Illinois Supreme Court.

The governor doesn’t respect the Illinois Constitution.

The governor doesn’t respect working people, especially those who belong to unions.

Hold that thought. The election is less than 13 months away.


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