A challenge to the pension-protection clause


Two years ago, I wrote of Illinois, “The state’s deepening fiscal crisis will end when an ordinary citizen, who is not a public employee, successfully challenges the Illinois constitution’s ‘pension-protection clause’ in a federal court.”  Curiously, something along these lines is happening.  The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit will soon consider the case of Bargo v. Bruce Rauner, et.al. which argues that the state’s ironclad protection of public-employee pensions is unfair to the other residents of Illinois.

The petitioner, Michael E. Bargo, Jr., is appealing the decision of a district court, which dismissed his case in May.  The brief Bargo filed in the lower court argued that the Illinois constitution’s pension-protection clause violates the equal protection clause of the US Constitution.  A single sentence makes up Article 13, Section 5, of the state constitution (the pension-protection clause), which reads: “PENSION AND RETIREMENT RIGHTS: 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.”

This provision inviolably protects the the pensions of every public employee, setting up a privileged class of Illinoisans with a “retirement right” that no one else in Illinois enjoys.  The arrangement appears to violate the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution, which declares: “No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the Unites States . . . nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

Much of Bargo’s brief concerns how the pension-protection clause affects Illinois taxpayers and the governments within Illinois.  Collectively, state and local governments are groaning under the weight of unfunded pension obligations totaling some $250 billion.  Meanwhile, Illinois sanctions several funding mechanisms that benefit the Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund (IMRF, the state’s largest pension fund) without regard to the needs and wishes of local populations.  These mechanisms allow the IMRF to seize state grants allocated to communities throughout the state without restriction and to seize revenue from county treasuries.  They empower IMRF to sue in circuit courts throughout the State.

Bargo seeks to demonstrate how the obligation to fund public pensions goes hand-in-hand with taxation that fails to benefit taxepayers, diverting funds away from public purposes.  As taxes are levied and engrossed for the sake of public employees, the general welfare of Illinois is suffering.  Pensions claim an ever larger share of the tuition that students pay at Illinois’ public universities.  School systems and social services throughout the state are suffering as a larger share of taxes must go to pension obligations.  As Illinois faces mounting financial embarrassment, its citizens must acquiesce in a system that transfers wealth from the general population and the State itself to one class of people, thanks to the superior protection the Illinois constitution affords public employees.

The pension-protection clause, which stipulates that a benefit once given to a public worker can never be reduced or taken away, robs government of the discretion to curb or modify pension provisions that are being abused or that are unduly generous to the point of being unaffordable.  The state’s courts have repeatedly cited the pension-protection clause in striking down pension-reform proposals, including several that the unions themselves have agreed to.  Unfortunately, Article 13, section 5, creates a class interest within the public sector that stacks the deck against ordinary Illinois citizens, making an appeal to the federal courts necessary.

Bargo v. Rauner, et. al., puts the pressure on the state’s most powerful officials to defend a principle gradually strangling once-vigorous Illinois.

Graphic by the Illinois Policy Institute.

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Subject Illinois’s Pension-Protection Clause To Federal Challenge

The state’s deepening fiscal crisis will end when an ordinary citizen, who is not a public employee, successfully challenges the Illinois constitution’s ‘pension-protection clause’ in a federal court.

The pension-protection clause is vulnerable to challenge because it violates the US Constitution’s guarantee that all citizens are entitled to equal protection under the law. Whereas the Fourteenth Amendment forbids any state from denying ‘any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws,’ the pension clause of the Illinois constitution defines a special class of citizens and protects it at the expense of others.  For too long, Illinois citizens have been told that they must live by this extraordinarily punitive and unfair provision, which is driving up the cost of government to benefit just one sub-population: public employees whose pensions and benefits the state guarantees.

Illinoisans are so used to living with this provision of their constitution that they don’t even stop to think how extraordinary it is. What other monetary benefit in our society enjoys such a complete guarantee? Medicare? No. Social Security? No. Private pensions? No. Food stamps? No. Despite Americans’ extensive reliance on such benefits, none of them enjoys a constitutional guarantee. Any of these benefits can be changed, diminished, or completely taken away.

Whereas the ordinary Illinois citizen must tolerate uncertainty, those lucky enough to belong to the ‘right club’ can be confident that their benefits can never be lessened or removed.  Illinois’s pension-protection clause defines a special class of citizens in terms of their distinctive relationship to the state and then confers unassailable privileges on them.  Article 13, section 5, of the state constitution states

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.

“Membership . . . shall be a relationship”: that’s the key phrase. Those who choose to work in Illinois’s public sector become members of a club whom the state apparatus will protect no matter what. Those who are not public workers are out of luck. Not only do ordinary Illinois citizens lack the equal protection under this law, but, because of it, their own financial security is being actively impaired, and the public welfare of Illinois is being gradually sacrificed to secure the well being of one special class in perpetuity.

As matters stand, Illinois’s pension-protection clause has become the yardstick against which any pension-reform legislation must be fearfully measured. The state courts are firm in their devotion to this provision, which benefits everyone in Illinois government, including its judges. Sensible, hard-won pension-reform legislation has been struck down while legality of this patently odious and in-egalitarian provision has gone unchallenged.

Illinois citizens must stand up and challenge the constitutionality of Illinois’s pension provision in the federal courts. A provision leading to such unfair and destructive outcomes is an affront to the larger purposes of government. It penalizes the bulk of Illinois’s population while extending extraordinary protections to public workers. It’s time for those penalized to ask: “What about me?”

Copyright Susan Barsy