My recent column complaining about the pension “reform” plan cobbled together by the General Assembly annoyed some readers. One reader asked whether, when I was young and did not get a toy I wanted for Christmas, did I forbid others from having it. No, but I might if I was being asked to pay for the others kids’ toys. I believe about pensions what I believe about health insurance. Each is a “benefit” that I regard as essential to every citizen in a civilized country and which thus should be available to all as a matter of public policy, not as a perk of private employment. Until the U.S. joins the rest of the developed world in providing them, we will have to endure the kinds of unfairness I complained about in my piece.
My central complaint—which I apparently did not make plain—is about the privileged places that pension obligations enjoy under the 1970 Constitution. The debate over reform caused much talk about the sanctity of the contract between the State of Illinois and its employees. But the Constitution is a contract too, between citizen and state. The courts, I expect, will rule that the State of Illinois’ contact with its workers is binding while that with its citizens is not, because the former is prescribed in specific language and the latter is promised.
Courts baffled by ambiguous statutory language often resort to reading the accounts of the deliberations that went into its drafting in order to divine legislators’ intent. In the case of the pension clause, however, there seems no ambiguity.
The constitution also states, “The State has the primary responsibility for financing the system of public education.” The meaning of the word “primary” is plain enough. So is the meaning of the framers, if we substitute those meanings into the phrase: “The State has a more important responsibility than anyone else for financing the system of public education” or “The State has the main responsibility for financing the system of public education.” Yet the principal sponsor of the language that was adopted, delegate Dawn Clark Netsch, told the delegates that she did not intend that her phrase impose a legally enforceable duty on the state to fund at least 50 percent of school costs, that the language was merely hortatory.
If this clause of the constitution, while straightforward in language, is nonetheless supposed to be read as merely hortatory, why should we assume that the equally straightforward language of the pension clause is not hortatory as well?