Local Editorials

Our View: Conflict enters pension reform conversation

When it comes to pension reform in Illinois, the state Supreme Court might have the final say.

But could it be campaign contributions that have the most influence?

Under pension reform passed by the General Assembly and signed into law by Gov. Pat Quinn last month, annual cost-of-living increases for retirees were reduced, and the retirement age for workers 45 and younger was raised.

Lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of the reform were promised. Retired teachers in Illinois delivered, filing suit late last month. Now, the legal showdown begins, and it’s likely the issue will end up in front of the Illinois Supreme Court.

Waiting for everyone in the Supreme Court chambers are six of seven justices who have collected nearly $3 million in campaign contributions during the past 13 years from groups that support both sides of the issue, the Chicago Sun-Times reported. Labor unions, business groups and a political fund operated by House Speaker Michael Madigan have given money to Illinois Supreme Court justices.

It appears Justice Bob Thomas is the only one to not accept money from a group who has interest in pension reform legislation. Thomas Kilbride has accepted the most.

All of this, of course, is in addition to all the money the same groups have given to the lawmakers themselves. To think money had no influence on how pension reform was crafted and passed or on the amount of time it took would be considered naive, at best.

Because of campaign contribution laws, money has too much influence on policy. At least that perception exists. And now that perception has seeped into the Illinois Supreme Court chambers.

“Even the most honorable justice has to acknowledge this looks bad. It puts them in a bad light,” David Yepsen, director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University, told the Sun-Times.

Of course, if Illinois Supreme Court justices weren’t required to seek voter approval to keep their jobs – as is the case with their federal counterparts – they’d have no reason to accept campaign donations, and such perceptions wouldn’t exist.

Did we mention that the Judges Retirement System was the only one of five pension accounts carved out of the bill? It was. Madigan said that was done to eliminate the possibility of conflict when lawsuits were filed and the court system got involved.

We agree with state Rep. Dan Brady, R-Bloomington, and his assessment regarding conflict of interest.

“If it’s a conflict for judges to be in the pension bill,” Brady said, “then it’s a conflict they’re taking money from the groups they’ll make rulings about.”

Of course, the same holds true for lawmakers.

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