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Are pensions the only sacred part of the state Constitution?

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One good thing to come out of the pension debate is that our state lawmakers have found at least one part of the Illinois Constitution that they’re not willing to violate.

If you’ve been reading the Northwest Herald’s award-winning coverage of the state pension mess, “Broken Benefits,” you’ll know that the five state-run pension systems for teachers, state employees, judges, professors and former General Assembly members are underfunded to the tune of at least $86 million, or about three times the entire state general fund.

It’s one of the issues that many people, including the Northwest Herald Editorial Board, fervently hopes gets addressed in the fall veto session set to begin tomorrow in Springfield. The proposal that’s the furthest along would allow current employees to accrue future benefits by paying more, transferring into a new tier that took effect in January, or entering a 401(k)-style plan.

But supporters and opponents of pension reform alike point to Article 13, Section 5 of the state Constitution, which states that, “Membership in any pension retirement system of the State ... shall be an enforceable contractual relationship, the benefits of which shall not be diminished or impaired.” Some are willing to move forward and force the issue in court, while others don’t want to chance it.

While I have my copy of the state Constitution opened (I'll link to it here if you want to follow along), let’s look at some other language that our state lawmakers have considered not nearly as sacrosanct as public employee pensions.

• Article 8, Section 3(b): “Appropriations for a fiscal year shall not exceed funds estimated by the General Assembly to be available during that year.” Translation: The state has to have a balanced budget. The idea is important enough that in Section 3(a), the Constitution forbids the governor from proposing a budget with expenses exceeding revenue.

General Assemblies and governors for years have laughed at this mandate, hence why we have a budget deficit that could hit $8.3 billion at the end of the 2012 fiscal year on June 30.

• Article 10, Section 1: “The State has the primary responsibility for financing the system of public education.” Suuuuure, it does. That’s why every year we all shriek in horror when we open up our property tax bills – in Illinois, local property taxes account for two-thirds of school districts’ budgets.

And of course, Gov. Pat Quinn is looking to have local counties become the primary funder of the regional offices of education as well.

• Article 4, Section 9: “Every bill passed by the General Assembly shall be presented to the Governor within 30 calendar days after its passage.” As Northwest Herald reporter Hilary Gowins pointed out in an Oct. 16 article, that massive gambling expansion bill passed back in May had yet to be given to Quinn out of fear he would veto it.

But wait! Holding the bill is legal, or something, because all the Senate President has to do is file a motion to reconsider after the bill passes to freeze it, which is exactly what John Cullerton, D-Chicago, did.

The horror of having a constitution that can be selectively enforced based on the whims of a few aside, let’s recap the argument at hand. It’s OK to run the state into a massive debt despite a balanced budget requirement, it’s OK to shirk the mandate that the state shoulder the load of school funding, and rules for passing bills were made to be bent or broken.

But we can’t touch those pensions because the Constitution says we can’t.

Senior Writer Kevin P. Craver can be reached at kcraver@shawmedia.com.

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