A Compromise For Illinois

A Compromise For Illinois July 5, 2018

Here’s an item in the Illinois state constitution that fiscal conservatives don’t like:  Article XIII, Section 5, which states that “Membership in any pension or retirement system of the State, any unit of local government or school district, or any agency or instrumentality thereof, shall be an enforceable contractual relationship, the benefits of which shall not be diminished or impaired.the benefits of which shall not be diminished or impaired.”  This means that whatever terms are in existence when an employee is first hired into the state, are promised to that employee for the entire duration of their employment.  And if benefits are enhanced, they will permanently get those enhanced benefits.

Here’s an item in the Illinois state constitution that Democrats don’t like:  Article IX, Section 3, that requires that “A tax on or measured by income shall be at a non-graduated rate.”  I say “Democrats” specifically because each of their primary candidates included in their platform the elimination of this clause and the imposition of higher marginal taxes on the so-called “millionaires and billionaires” — though in practice proposals impose higher taxes on virtually everyone.

In my world, neither of these clauses belong in the constitution.  At the state level, the constitution should be a document which sets forth the structure of the governing bodies, how those in power are elected, which activities are the responsibilities of the state vs. local governments, and other basic elements of the government.

So let’s create a compromise:  a constitutional amendment that eliminates both these clauses, offered up to voters at the next available opportunity.  Mind you, there would be no accompanying legislation that either cuts pension benefits nor raises taxes.  It would merely be a “clean-up” of the constitution.  And, as a reminder, the Illinois constitutional amendment process provides for either amendment-by-petition, that is, with amendments which gain enough signatures going on the ballot (which is virtually guaranteed to fail because its opponents can bankroll a court fight, e.g., in the attempt to get an anti-gerrymandering amendment passed failed because at every turn Madigan and his allies fought it), or enables the legislature themselves to choose items to put on the ballot.  I don’t anticipate that there’d be a lot of energy for a group to put such an amendment on the ballot, but it seems to me that this is something about which there’s at least the slimmest of possibilities (which, in Illinois, is about as good as you’re going to get) that Madigan might see as promising because he could get support from Republicans for a supermajority).

So how ’bout it?  Let’s restore to the legislature, as our elected* representatives, the ability both to make changes to public employees’ future pension accruals and to modify the income tax rates on marginal incomes.

Is it a huge risk?  Is there a chance that the ultimate outcome would be higher taxes, while leaving pension formulas untouched, because of the degree of the Democrats’ stranglehold on Illinois government, and especially because of Pritzker’s promise to do exactly this?  Recall that he not only has no plan other than “refinancing,” that is, reamortizing the debt to a new payment schedule further out into the future, but he excoriated his primary opponent for having made an effort to solve the problem.

But we should take that risk nonetheless, because our choices are so few in our current situation, and because that at least gives us hope for future reform.

 

*Yes, you might quibble that “elected” isn’t really the right term here, given the extreme gerrymandering in Illinois that’s the cause of the quip that legislators are selecting their districts rather than districts selecting their legislators, as well as the tight hold Madigan has due to the campaign cash he controls.  But we are where we are.

 

Image:  Illinois state capitol; https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Illinoiscapitol2.jpg

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