COLUMNS

Do we need a Constitutional Convention?

Rich Miller/Capitol Fax

I’m a member of a union. My father was a proud union member. His father was a union member and, for a time, a union organizer. I own a business. My maternal grandparents, whom I cherished more than anyone else when I was a kid, were farmers. My mother was a public school teacher for several years. Both of my parents are now retired and rely heavily on their government pensions.

What the heck does any of that have to do with anything?

Well, unions, business groups, the Illinois Farm Bureau and, most of all, groups representing retired public employees and retirees are all up in arms about the upcoming state constitutional convention referendum.

Every 20 years, Illinois voters are given the right to call for a constitutional convention. And all those groups want you to vote “No” next month for various reasons.

I’m on the other side. I want you to vote “Yes,” but because of my personal history, I’m often a bit puzzled to find myself on the other side of this issue.

The union people are worried about the introduction of a right to work provision, or other erosions of their hard-fought gains in this state.

Business groups fret that a constitutional convention could come up with crazy liberal ideas, or mess with the way income taxes can be levied on businesses.

The Farm Bureau sees reason for concern in the very nature of Illinois politics. The convention, they warn, would be “stacked in favor of urban areas.” Farmers’ property taxes are lower than residential rates, for instance, and that might go out the window.

Public employee and teachers unions and associated retiree groups are probably the most intense in their opposition, however. That’s probably because their members may have the most to lose.

Two years ago, Gov. Rod Blagojevich attempted to reduce pension benefits for future state and local public employees and teachers. Senate President Emil Jones, his only real ally, backed him up. House Speaker Michael Madigan, who doesn’t get along with Blagojevich, announced his keen interest in the governor’s plan. The unions freaked, and it took a huge effort to defeat the proposal.

The unions and retirees figured that if “friendly” politicians who had accepted millions of dollars in campaign contributions from them had turned against their interests so quickly, then a constitutional convention, which can’t possibly be controlled as easily as the General Assembly, would be an absolute nightmare.

They’re right. The state’s underfunded pension systems are draining the state budget at an alarming rate, causing outcries of reform from numerous corners. And then there are those who regularly whip up public resentment by pointing to the average Joe taxpayer who has no guaranteed pension benefits for life. A constitutional convention may very well address this issue.

However, some of the retirees have unfortunately resorted to distortions, brazen fear tactics and outright lies to frighten pensioners into voting “No.”

Let me clear up a few things.

No matter what happens at the constitutional convention, state and local governments cannot legally reduce pension payments to current retirees. A convention cannot legally take away pension payment benefits already earned by current employees. The chances are nil that the delegates would do anything weird like force the combination of the Chicago teachers pension fund and the Downstate teachers pension fund.

And, of course, everything decided at the constitutional convention would have to then be approved by the voters in a statewide referendum.

A convention could, however, change a few words in the current constitution that would allow the General Assembly to eventually make changes, like reduce future pension benefits, including health care benefits, for current workers or workers yet to be hired. But it’s highly improbable that the convention delegates themselves would micromanage pension funding proposals.

Personally, I wouldn’t blame public employees and teachers for voting “No” on the constitutional convention question. On the other hand, I think most, maybe not all, of those other groups mentioned above are probably overstating their case.

But, for me, there are just too many other issues - like the power hoarded by the very few at the expense of the many - which so desperately need addressing in this state to pass on this once in a generation opportunity. The people need to take back their constitution for themselves. So, please, vote “Yes” on the constitutional convention. Thanks.

Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and thecapitolfaxblog.com.