Pension debate at 1970 Constitutional Convention echoes in today's crisis

Monday, September 23, 2013

Illinois' crushing public pension crisis has been literally decades in the making, but the present stalemate in Springfield over how to resolve it can be traced in great measure to a single point in time: July 21, 1970.
Richard Nixon was president, the war in Vietnam was raging, and it had been barely a year since man first walked on the moon and Illinois first imposed a state income tax.
Meanwhile, on that mid-summer day 43 years ago, the framers of a soon-to-be-approved new constitution for Illinois held their only substantive discussion of pensions. They signed off on a 40-word paragraph that backers and critics both agreed at the time was aimed at providing an ironclad guarantee to public workers that their pension benefits, once promised, could not be trimmed.
"If a police officer accepted employment under a provision where he was entitled to retire at two-thirds of his salary after 20 years of service, that could not subsequently be changed to say he was entitled to only one-third of his salary after 30 years of service, or perhaps entitled to nothing," said Helen Kinney, of Hinsdale, a Republican delegate to the convention drafting the new charter and one of four lead sponsors of the pension clause.
The debate was whether to define pension benefits as "an enforceable contractual relationship" that "shall not be diminished or impaired." After hours, the convention voted 57-36 in favor of adding the language to the broader constitutional draft.