“Key Conclusions Derived from the Pension Clause’s Convention Debates
In sum, the following conclusions regarding original intent may be drawn from the Pension Clause’s Convention debates:
“The principal sponsors each offered examples of how the provision prohibited the legislature from altering the terms of an employee’s pension benefit rights after he or she entered service:
“First, prior to the [Pension] Clause’s adoption, nearly all public employees were members of mandatory pension plans that lacked constitutional protection as ‘contractual’ rights and could be adversely changed by the legislature at any time. These mandatory plans were also underfunded and no better funded than the State’s five pension systems today.
“Second, public employees believed constitutional protection was necessary because the State had historically failed to make its required contributions and because employees felt that the State would renege on its obligations should a fiscal crisis arise. Police and firemen were particularly concerned that municipalities would use their new ‘home rule’ powers to abandon their local pension systems. Accordingly, employee groups advocated for a constitutional provision that would not only protect pension benefit rights but also require the full funding of the pension system.
“Third, the drafters of the Clause were aware of the concerns raised and requests made by public employee groups, the State’s failure to properly fund the pension system, and the difference in legal protection afforded to persons participating in a mandatory and optional pension plan. These concerns, in turn, prompted the drafters to include the Clause in the new Constitution.
“Fourth, the drafters intended for the Clause to (1) protect pension benefit rights in all pension plans as ‘enforceable contractual rights’ as of when a public employee became a member of a pension system, and (2) bar the legislature from later unilaterally reducing those rights. In particular, the legislature could not require an employee to contribute a greater percentage of his or her salary to receive the same benefit, require him or her to work more years to receive the same benefit, or pay the employee a lower pension if he or she met his or her contribution and service obligations.
“Fifth, while the drafters did not intend for the Clause to require the funding of the pension system at any particular funding percentage [People ex rel. Illinois Federation of Teachers v. Lindberg (1975), McNamee v. State (1996), and People ex rel. Sklodowski v. State (1998) (pages 37-41)], they nonetheless intended to require that pension benefit payments be paid when those payments became due, even if a pension system were to default or be on the verge of default. Indeed, the drafters contemplated that an employee could enforce his or her right to benefit payments in court through a group action to compel payment.
“Sixth, the drafters based the Clause on an identical provision in the New York Constitution, and included the Clause, in part, to foreclose the circumstance that occurred in New Jersey Supreme Court’s decision in Spina where the court upheld a unilateral reduction in pension benefits.
“Seventh, the drafters were aware of the concerns raised by the Pension Laws Commission as to the significant limitation the Clause would place on legislative power. And, they rejected the Commission’s overtures to amend the Clause to allow the General Assembly to unilaterally change employee contribution rates, service conditions or other benefit terms.
“Eighth, voters ratified the Clause based on the premise that the provision protected public pension benefit rights from reductions and that public employees were granted a constitutional right to their ‘full pension benefits.’
“Finally, a plain language reading of the Pension Clause’s text makes clear that governmental entities may not reduce or eliminate a public employee’s pension payments and other membership entitlements once the employee becomes a pension system member. At the same time, the plain language also indicates that an employee’s pension payments and other membership entitlements are ‘contractual’ rights that may be presumably altered through mutual assent via contract principles. Further, the Clause’s prohibitory language against the diminishment or impairment of pension benefits is cast in absolute terms and lacks any exceptions…” (pages 25-26).
from IS WELCHING ON PUBLIC PENSION PROMISES AN OPTION FOR ILLINOIS?
AN ANALYSISOF ARTICLE XIII, SECTION 5 OF THE ILLINOIS CONSTITUTION by Eric M. Madiar, Chief Legal Counsel to Illinois Senate President John J. Cullerton and Parliamentarian of the Illinois Senate.