Another voice is heard in the ongoing debate over Illinois’ ailing public pensions but it won’t be the last one to speak out on this controversial issue.
Attorney Eric Madiar, chief legal counsel to Illinois Senate President John Cullerton, today weighs in with a comprehensive analysis about whether the Legislature can chop into the pension benefits of current public employees.
Madiar’s conclusion: No way.
In his analysis, Madiar argues any attempt by the Legislature to reduce current employee benefits in the public pension system would violate the state’s Pension Clause, which was adopted when the Illinois Constitution was drafted and approved in 1970.
Madiar’s analysis concedes the pensions are in financial straits while taking direct aim at arguments made by public pension critics and Chicago law firm Sidley Austin LLP, which contend the state is acting more like Santa Claus when it comes to funding public pensions with tax dollars and that reducing current state workers’ benefits is totally legal.
The Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago often cites Sidley’s argument when discussing the public pension fund crisis. The state’s five major pension funds are projected to be underfunded $80 to $100 billion—money the taxpayers are on the hook to eventually pay.
The Chicago Tribune editorial board has also echoed Sidley’s argument, calling for reducing the benefits of current state employees.
(The state has approved a law to reduce the pension benefits of new state employees.)
It’s unlikely that Madiar’s analysis will put to rest the issue of whether it’s legal to cut into current state workers’ pension benefits. Nor will it stop opponents from advocating huge benefit reductions.
Indeed, critics could dismiss Madiar’s analysis as a partisan interpretation on behalf of the heavily Democratic and pro-labor Illinois Senate.
Nonetheless, Madiar’s report will provide additional legal cover for those politicians who don’t want to take on the labor unions or tackle such a highly contentious issue.
By the way, Madiar does not say it’s impossible for the state to cut the benefits of current state workers.
Instead, he asserts that the only way to do so is through collective bargaining—an issue that’s ignited a firestorm of controversy between public employee workers and the governor of neighboring Wisconsin.