Illinois Supreme Court to hear first arguments on pension reform lawsuit

By Josh Winters

The Illinois Supreme Court will hear oral arguments regarding the lawsuit over Senate Bill 1, or the Illinois pension reform bill, on Wednesday.

Sangamon County Circuit Court Judge John Belz struck down the law on Nov. 21, 2014. It was then taken up by the state’s highest court immediately after the ruling, as required by Illinois law.

The issue at hand is whether the law has the legal authority to reduce the pension benefits of the state’s workers. The law’s supporters believe that given the state’s ongoing fiscal crisis, SB 1 will be allowed to stand. Data from the Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability shows that in Illinois had an unfunded pension liability of $111.2 billion.

However, opponents of the pension reform bill believe the law is unconstitutional. Article XIII of the Illinois constitution states that membership in any state pension or retirement system is “an enforceable contractual relationship, the benefits of which shall not be diminished or impaired.”

In his opinion, Belz said that SB 1 violated the pension clause, making the law unconstitutional.

University Spokesman Tom Hardy said not much will change for University employees regardless of the ruling.

“If the law is struck down, that means that there is no pension funding law,” Hardy said. “We’ll either continue the way we are, or the governor and the legislature will go back and see if they can figure out a pension funding law that can stand constitutional scrutiny.”

If the law is upheld, Hardy said, the University will continue to fund its employees’ pension plans the same way it has since SB 1 was passed in December 2013. However, he said Belz’s ruling seems to indicate that the Illinois Supreme Court will likely strike the law down.

In a previous interview with The Daily Illini, John Colombo, interim dean of the College of Law, said the Illinois Supreme Court could issue a brief summary opinion on SB 1, which would state the court’s opinion, or it could issue an advisory opinion.

In that case, it could outline a constitutionally-sound pension reform plan, he said.

There is currently no established time table for the court to issue an SB 1 ruling, though Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan said she intended to press the court for a speedy ruling following Belz’s decision.

“We will ask the court to expedite the appeal given the significant impact that a final decision in this case will have on the state’s fiscal condition,” Madigan said in a 2014 statement.

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