Opinion: Why You Should Vote No On Amendment 49

Anders Lindall, director of public affairs for AFSCME Council 31, argues against a constitutional amendment that would require a three-fifths majority to increase pension benefits for public employees. 

Q: Why should people vote against Amendment 49?

A: For decades, politicians have misdirected money owed to the retirement systems that provide the modest pension benefits earned by teachers and child protection workers, caregivers and other public servants in Illinois. Those pensions are just $32,000 a year on average. Eighty percent of Illinois public employees don't have Social Security; their pension is their primary and often sole source of retirement income. For their entire career, they have paid faithfully and full from every paycheck, 8 to 10 percent. All that time, the politicians were shorting or even outright skipping their required contributions to the five state-funded systems. That is what has caused the $80 billion pension debt, and this change to the constitution would not do a thing to address that very real. This should be called "The Politician Protection Amendment," or the "Cover Your Butts Amendment." The only thing it does is give the politcians a fig leaf for their misuse of monies that should have gone to the retirement systems, and their inaction as the pension debt got worse.

Q: But this passed almost unanimously in both houses. Where were labor's Democratic allies on this vote?

A: I think anybody that believes that the battle over retirement security for public service workers is a partisan issue hasn't been paying attention. This is a corporate and political attack on public service workers who paid into the system. Now they're trying to tell them they've lost the game.

Q: But this isn't going to affect any current benefits. It just prevents them from increasing future benefits.

A: It allows them to misdirect the blame and shift the conversation to be about benefits, when in fact the problem is about funding.

Q: What do you say to someone who says, "AFSCME is just being self-serving. Why should public employees be getting the kinds of benefits that private employees are no longer getting?"

A: First of all, every private sector employee in America has Social Security. Public employees aren't eligible for that. If you work hard your whole life and you do your part, you should have dignity and security.

Q: How would this affect future contract negotiations?

A: This change to the Constitution would create some very real problems. For one, it's anti-democratic. It would mandate that any legislative body in the state, whether the General Assembly, school board, City Council would require a three-fifths majority to approve any collective bargaining agreement or budget that could be construed as having the effect of improving a pension benefit. Almost no other other decision requires anything more than a simple majority. Issuing bonded debt at the state level requires [three-fifths]. It would make it more difficult and cumbersome to win approval for collective bargaining agreements or budgets or anything else that might fall under this, and it would empower the minority to block any provisions that they might oppose for any reason. Adding future roadblocks to the will of the democratic majority is not the way to go.

Q: If it's OK for bonded debt, why not this? Isn't this also a future obligation?

A: You could say that about any future obligation. The language is written very vaguely. It's unclear. That leads to a second negative outcome, which is that it is certain there will be costly litigation around not only this change to the Constitution, but around countless specific collective bargaining agreements, or other changes to state or local compensation that might be impacted by this amendment. It appears to state that a wage increase would not require a three-fifths majority, but it's less clear as to what other types of compensation that might impact a pension benefit could trigger the need for that super-majority.

Q: Would AFSCME challenge this in court?

A: I don't think that anybody would foreclose on any future options.

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