In the final two weeks of the 2013 spring legislative session, lawmakers are weighing two bills that address what is arguably the greatest financial crisis in state history. Without changes, the pension systems for teachers, state employees, university employees, lawmakers and judges are destined for bankruptcy. And as the state tries to keep them afloat, it is shoveling more and more tax dollars into pensions. So much more that schools this year probably will lose $400 million in state funding.
The problem is, the state constitution is explicit in saying that pension benefits can't be diminished for those to whom they were promised. Thus, any pension reform measure that reduces pension benefits will cause a lawsuit alleging a violation of the constitution.
That's why the General Assembly now has two starkly different bills before it. House Speaker Michael Madigan's bill makes no secret of its diminishment of benefits. The bill contains a nine-page preamble describing the awful financial state of the state. It's a built in defense to the inevitable court challenge that says the protection afforded pension benefits is not absolute, nor does it supersede the overall well-being of the state.
Senate President John Cullerton believes no bill will survive in court unless it gives employees a choice of keeping promised benefits in exchange for giving up something no protected by the constitution. In this case it's health insurance after retirement. Employees have three choices in his bill.
Trying to keep the details straight can be a dizzying endeavor, so we offer a quick summary at a glance.