A first, necessary step toward returning Illinois to fiscal solvency

Repeal the Illinois constitution's provision that guarantees the fat pensions for state public employees.

The provision, Article XIII, Section 5, of the constitution says:

Membership in any pension or retirement system of the State, any unit of local government or school district, or any agency or instrumentality thereof, shall be an enforceable contractual relationship, the benefits of which shall not be diminished or impaired. (1970 Illinois Constitution, Article XIII, Section 5)

Thanks to that clause, Illinois is in deep, deep financial trouble, something that even the liberal New York Times recognizes. Every cent of the recent increase in the state income tax is going to pay for pensions, which are underfunded by at least $80 billion. We don't have enough shovels to dig ourselves out of this pit.

How did we get into this mess? The clause was snuck in the constitution by labor union handmaidens  at the Illinois Constitutional Convention (Con-Con) in 1970 without hearing by any of the committees. I explained how it happened in my Chicago Tribune op-ed column a year ago.

There are complicated legal issues attached to this short clause  and the lawsuits it has spawned. Here, from the Naperville law firm of Ottosen Britz Kelly Cooper Gilbert & DiNolfo, is one analysis that I've randomly selected from Google.  Good luck with wading through it.

The only way out of this morass is to change the  change the constitution. Get rid of the clause. Powerful special interests will stand fast against any such move and the odds that it will happen are slim. But it's worth a try.

So, kudos go to Jonathan Greenberg, the  Republican candidate  for the north suburban 57th House district, for having the courage to go directly after the problem. If elected (he's running against Democratic incumbent Elaine Nekritz) he said he would propose a repeal of the pension protection clause. He said:

Our pension system can't continue. The whole thing sucks, it's not fixable without hurting someone and for the most part, these are people who did nothing wrong. I think it's very important that we acknowledge... the state lied.

The Tribune has endorsed Greenberg:

57th District: Democratic Rep. Elaine Nekritz, of Northbrook, is chairwoman of the pension committee and one of the more outspoken members of the Democratic caucus on pension reform. Nekritz is respected by those on all sides of the pension debate. She received the endorsement of the AFL-CIO and gets props from business groups calling for change. We have a lot of respect for her too. But the fact is she has little to show for her efforts. During a special session on pensions in August, the House adjourned without a vote on her pension reform bills. What kind of influence does she have, really, if nothing changes? We're more than two years into "negotiations."

So how can voters express their outrage? Nekritz' Republican opponent Jonathan Greenberg, of Northbrook, is sharp, sincere and fed up. A first-time candidate, he decided to run after growing increasingly frustrated with the status quo in Springfield. He understands the urgent need for pension reform. He says the 67 percent income tax increase of 2011 should be repealed "on principle" because lawmakers passed it on the last day of a lame duck session. He's one of the most impressive challengers we've come across in this election. Greenberg is endorsed.

Even if the labor union money beats Greenberg, I suspect he has a bright future in the Republican Party, if it stands firm in its determination to properly resolve the state's fiscal crisis.

In the meantime,  don't be fooled. There's a referendum on Tuesday's ballot that claims to "reform" the pension system by making it "tougher" to approve benefit increases. It's humbug. This Chicago Tribune editorial explains why it is a "worthless head fake."

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