CHICAGO – Illinois voters have rejected a proposed amendment to the state constitution that would have made it more difficult to expand public employee retirement benefits.
With about 90 percent of the vote reported on Wednesday morning the proposed amendment had support from 56 percent of Illinoisans who voted on the measure. But that fell short of the two criteria needed for passage.
The measure needed a favorable vote from either three-fifths of those voting on the measure, or 50 percent of the total number of votes cast in Tuesday's election. Nearly 5 million people voted in the election.
With lawmakers stalemated on how to fix a severely underfunded pension system, the amendment would have required a three-fifths vote of the Legislature — instead of a simple majority — to increase pension benefits for public employees.
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 was intended to rein in lawmakers who might ram a pension increase through the General Assembly.
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.
Critics pointed out the change would do nothing to make up an $85 billion shortfall in the amount owed to five public pension systems. And it would rarely have an effect on pension-boost votes.
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.
"I skipped that one," said Heather Englehart, 37, of Naperville. "I tried, but the way they're worded can be tricky, and I don't like to vote unless I know what I'm voting for."
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.
Erika Miner, 34, of Champaign, 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."