The Hidden Economic Logic Behind the “Take it to the Courts” View on Illinois Pensions

Posted by Jeffrey Brown on May 23, 2011

Filed Under (Retirement Policy, U.S. Fiscal Policy)

Many public employees and retirees in Illinois are (understandably) extremely agitated by the ongoing discussions about public pension reform in Illinois.  Today, I was forwarded yet another email by someone concerned about recent comments made by Illinois State Treasurer Dan Rutherford. 

In a nutshell, some in the legislature are kicking around an idea to get around the Illinois constitution’s prohibition against “impairing” retirement benefits by offering employees a choice:  pay higher premiums in order to keep existing benefits, or switch into a less generous plan. 

To questions about whether this would or would not violate the impairment clause of the Illinois constitution, there is considerable uncertainty.  Rutherford’s reaction view is (my paraphrase, not an actual quote) – “let’s pass it and then let the Courts sort it out.”

It is obvious why this is not satisfying to public employees – after all, it is their benefits that might get cut, or their contributions that may go up. But setting aside all the questions about what we “should” or “should not” do, I think there is tremendous logic to having the legislature pass a law in order to get a more definitive ruling on what the state “can” or “cannot” do.  Yes, I agree that it is really unfortunate that we may have to pass a law to find out exactly where the limits of the impairment clause are, but that appears to be the hand we have been dealt.  But figuring out where Illinois Courts will draw this line is exceedingly important.

Why?  As I have noted before, when employers provide employee benefits, they are not doing so just to be nice.  They are doing so to attract, retain and motivate employees.  In short, it is one component of the compensation package.  In an environment that is disciplined by market forces, employers will only offer employees pensions if the average employee values the pension at more than it costs the employer to provide.  Otherwise, both would be made better off by paying cash.  As I have also written, however, it is not clear how well this market discipline works for public employees.

The major problem we have in Illinois is that we may be in the worst of all worlds, namely, one in which the pension benefits are indeed fully protected by the constitution, but where the perception of political risk means that employees value them far less then they will actually cost to provide.  If this is the case, then nobody wins!  Taxpayers are on the hook for the full cost, but employees do not value the benefits fully.  So the total cost of providing public services goes up!

We would all be better off to have legal clarity.  If the state courts rule that the benefits are protected, then public employees and retirees can go back to valuing their benefits at full value (which will help with recruitment, retention, and general happiness), and the state can move on to figuring out how else to manage its serious fiscal problems.  If the court rules that forcing higher contributions does not violate the contribution, then we can hopefully have a sensible conversation about what the optimal mix of wages and benefits are going forward. 

Either outcome would be far preferable to the current situation.