What'd they say three years ago about pensions?

What'd they say three years ago about pensions?

Posted by Mike Riopell on Thu, 02/07/2013 - 16:42

On Monday, we had a story that wrestled with one of the biggest - if not the biggest - question facing any attempt to cut teachers' or state workers' pension benefits: Is it even legal to do?

Today, on a lark, we decided to look through the House and Senate transcripts from three years ago when lawmakers cut benefits for future employees, leaving current workers alone.

That move was generally agreed to not cross the Illinois Constitution. After all, people who aren't in the pension systems yet can't sue because their benefits got cut. They don't have any.

But, we wondered, did anyone in those debates talk about whether they thought it'd be legal to mess with benefits for current employees?

We're not sure it means anything beyond our own curiosity, but it appears they did.

On March 24, 2010, as lawmakers debated the plan, then state Rep. David Winters asked House Speaker Michael Madigan why current employees weren't included. Winters argued that a Civic Committee report suggested lawmakers could go ahead.

Madigan disagreed.

"Mr. Winters, I'm familiar with the legal opinion that the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club has submitted," he said on the House floor, according to the transcript. "I would respond that there's a significant body of legal thinking which would oppose that opinion."

Madigan is a powerful figure in Springfield, and if he was to push a pension reform plan hard, some of the gridlock, it's thought, could loosen up.

Later that day in 2010, Senate President John Cullerton addressed the same issue in a floor speech, saying more directly that he doesn't think workers' benefits could be cut.

"We have done research on this," he said. "We believe it's very clear, based on case law and cases interpreting New York's verbatim provision, that we cannot do so..."

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