- Associated Press - Friday, May 8, 2015

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) - The Illinois Supreme Court criticized the General Assembly’s handling of public pension funding in a ruling striking down a landmark 2013 law that sought to fix the state’s pension crisis. The court found the law unconstitutional because it would have diminished state employees’ earned benefits. Here are excerpts from the ruling:

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“The General Assembly had available to it all the information it needed to estimate the long-term costs of (the pension) provisions, including the costs of annual annuity increases… The law was clear that the promised benefits would therefore have to be paid, and that the responsibility for providing the State’s share of the necessary funding fell squarely on the Legislature’s shoulders. Accordingly, the funding problems which developed were entirely foreseeable. The General Assembly may find itself in crisis, but it is a crisis which other public pension systems managed to avoid and … it is a crisis for which the General Assembly itself is largely responsible.”

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“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.”

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“That the State did not select the least drastic means of addressing its financial difficulties is reinforced by the legislative history. As noted earlier in this opinion, the chief sponsor of the legislation stated candidly that other alternatives were available. Public Act 98-599 was in no sense a last resort. Rather, it was an expedient to break a political stalemate.”

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“The Illinois Constitution … expressly provides that the benefits of membership in a public retirement system ‘shall not be diminished or impaired.’ Through this provision, the people of Illinois yielded none of their sovereign authority. They simply withheld an important part of it from the Legislature because they believed, based on historical experience, that when it came to retirement benefits for public employees, the Legislature could not be trusted with more.”

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“Even with the protections of that provision, the General Assembly has repeatedly attempted to find ways to circumvent (the constitution’s) clear and unambiguous prohibition against the diminishment or impairment of the benefits of membership in public retirement systems. Public Act 98-599 is merely the latest assault in this ongoing political battle against public pension rights.”

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“If police powers could be invoked to nullify express constitutional rights and protections whenever the Legislature (or other branches of government) felt that economic or other exigencies warranted, it is not merely pension benefits of public employees that would be in jeopardy. No rights or property would be safe from the State. Today it is nullification of the right to retirement benefits. Tomorrow it could be renunciation of the duty to repay State obligations. Eventually, investment capital could be seized.”

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“In ruling as we have today, we do not mean to minimize the gravity of the State’s problems or the magnitude of the difficulty facing our elected representatives. It is our obligation, however, just as it is theirs, to ensure that the law is followed. That is true at all times. … Crisis is not an excuse to abandon the rule of law. It is a summons to defend it. How we respond is the measure of our commitment to the principles of justice we are sworn to uphold.”

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Online: https://www.illinoiscourts.gov/


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