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Illinoisans to vote on state pension sweeteners

With Illinois officials divided over what to do about state pensions, voters on Tuesday get to tackle the issue — or at least a part of it.

A proposed amendment to the Illinois Constitution would make it more difficult for officials to improve retirement benefits for public employees.

Basically, the amendment would require a three-fifths vote instead of a simple majority for any pension increase. To the consternation of public employee unions, cutting benefits would still require just a simple majority.

Illinois pension systems are in a financial mess, and some critics say legislators too often grant better benefits without worrying about the cost. The amendment is intended to encourage consensus and keep the majority party from ramming a bill through the Legislature.

It's also a reaction to cases of special benefits being provided to well-connected people, such as two union lobbyists who qualified for teachers' pensions after spending just one day as substitute teachers.

But it's not clear how much the amendment could help.

Most pension "sweeteners" have been approved by overwhelming majorities, and the increases are a small part of the financial problem. They account for only 9 percent of growth in the pension shortfall over the past 15 years.

Besides raising the vote requirement in the Legislature, the amendment also would raise the requirement for city councils, school boards and other public bodies to pass anything that would increase pension costs, aside from higher wages. Critics say this invites a storm of lawsuits over exactly what would be covered by the amendment.

Some voters seemed confused by the wording of the ballot measure Tuesday, uncertain whether a "yes" vote represented support for public employees or support for fiscal restraint.

But other voters said they felt well informed on the issue.

In Springfield, Lynn McClanahan, 42, a retail grocery manager, said she voted yes because she doesn't believe public workers should be entitled to more benefits than other workers.

"We all work hard and we should all share the burden together," McClanahan said.

But 67-year-old John Taylor of Chicago voted against the amendment because his wife is a retired teacher. He said he doesn't understand why a "supermajority" should be needed to increase benefits.

Erika Miner, 34, of Champaign, a stay-at-home mother of three also voted against the amendment.

"I do have some friends that are teachers (and) my mom was a teacher," Miner said. "Anything that's going to affect their pensions — that's a big deal to me."

The amendment can be approved two ways. It can get "yes" votes from at least three-fifths of the people voting on the amendment itself, or it can be approved by a majority of everyone voting in the election overall.

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