If Illinois' new pension law is found unconstitutional, which looks more likely in light of a recent state Supreme Court decision, one obvious remedy is to amend the state constitution.
“We need that flexibility,” said state Rep. Joseph Sosnowski, who introduced a constitutional amendment proposal last year that died in committee. “Now, based off this court ruling, this may be our last ability to look at trying to modify pensions.” He plans to reintroduce his proposed amendment in the spring, “especially in light of the court's decision.”
Proponents of pension reform, from Gov. Pat Quinn and Attorney General Lisa Madigan to the business groups that pushed for it, are not conceding defeat. Other issues, such as Illinois' ability to remain solvent, might prevail over a clause in the constitution that says retirement benefits can't be impaired or diminished.
However, it's not too early to start thinking about alternatives, given that the state Supreme Court's 6-1 ruling July 3 in Kanerva vs. Weems is so strongly worded, expanding the pension protection clause to include retiree health-care benefits. There's talk of trying to expedite a court challenge of the broader pension law.
“I don't think this case will end up going to trial,” said John Colombo, interim dean of the University of Illinois College of Law in Urbana.
The pension reform law “is as dead as a doornail, " he said. "The state needs to start thinking about what it's going to do when the inevitable happens.”
One big question raised by the Kanerva decision is whether the state Supreme Court will rule that the current benefit structure is locked in for existing employees, which means a constitutional amendment would not retroactively allow reductions in the benefits in place when current employees were hired.
“Even if it passes, it's very likely it could apply only prospectively,” said Mr. Colombo. “It depends how strict the (Illinois) Supreme Court ends up being. I think the court is going to be pretty strict.”
Even so, amending the Illinois Constitution would not be easy, to say the least, given recent history and the state's current political climate. It would need approval by a three-fifths vote in both the Illinois House and Senate. That's just to put a proposed amendment on the ballot, where it would need to be approved by 60% of those voting on the issue.
Chances for a constitutional amendment are “a lot better than it was last time,” said Mr. Sosnowski, after the Kanerva decision signaled how strictly the court viewed the pension protection clause. “A lot of people looked at that and said we've got possibilities.”