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National Editorials & Columns

Reeder: State Supreme Court holds future of Illinois in its hands

SPRINGFIELD – A Sangamon County judge just snapped the first buckle on the state’s straight jacket last week.

Despite this, expect Illinois’ leaders to struggle to deal with the state’s crushing pension debt.

Circuit Judge John Belz ruled that a plan championed by House Speaker Mike Madigan and Gov. Pat Quinn was unconstitutional. The measure almost certainly will be next considered by the state Supreme Court.

At issue is whether the state can reduce retirement benefits for future work performed by government workers.

Faced with more than $111 billion in unfunded pension liabilities, Illinois is in the worst fiscal condition of any state.

And Belz’s ruling sets the stage for the crisis to deepen.

While government worker unions were touting the ruling as a victory, it’s actually sowing despair for many current employees and sets the stage for generational warfare.

If the high court upholds this ruling, tax dollars that would go to support schools, prisons and other state services will be diverted to fund pensions.

Look for teachers, prison guards and other state workers to receive pink slips to free up money for increased pension payments. Who else but government workers routinely retire in their 50s, have guaranteed cost-of-living adjustments and pensions guaranteed to grow until the day they die?

Not most of us in the private sector, that’s for sure.

Things won’t be pretty during the 2015 legislative session, which begins in January.

Don’t be surprised if deep cuts are made in state spending, less money flows to schools, and more government workers head toward the unemployment line.

And things could get worse when summer comes. That’s when the labor contract with the largest state workers union expires.

One should expect Gov.-elect Bruce Rauner to demand wage concessions.

It’s simple math.

With more money going to pensions, less will be available for wages and other benefits.

Of course, the Illinois Supreme Court could rule that the crisis is so extreme that the state’s emergency powers allow it to reshape pensions on their own.

Just how severe is the crisis? If all of state government were to shut down and its entire operating budget were diverted to fund pensions, Illinois pensions still be would in the hole three years from now.

Now, that’s a crisis.

Will the state Supreme Court see it as a sufficient crisis for the state to exercise its “police power” or “reserved sovereign power” to diminish pension benefits? That’s the $111 billion question.

Gov. Pat Quinn says he is confident they will.

And when the measure was debated before the House of Representatives, Mike Madigan said the same. And that’s what his daughter, Attorney General Lisa Madigan, is arguing. It’s also the position held by the Republican leaders in the General Assembly.

So what will the High Court decide? The future of Illinois depends on it.

• Scott Reeder is a veteran statehouse reporter and a journalist with Illinois News Network, a project of the Illinois Policy Institute. He can be reached at

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