The classic definition of ethics is “the greatest happiness or benefit to the greatest number.” Another definition is simply to do the right thing.
Apparently, a majority of the Illinois General Assembly decided to do the right thing and pass the bill to overhaul the Illinois pension system. The legislators put aside objections from retirees and labor unions, questions of constitutionality, and perhaps considerations about their own re-election, to act in the interest of the greatest number — the people of Illinois. The time for action had come. Every day that went by without a fix for the pension problem was making the situation worse and more
nearly unfixable. The state was facing financial ruin.
The measures taken were recommended by House and Senate committees and represented the best compromise the legislators could work out. House Speaker Mike Madigan, Senate President John Cullerton and Governor Pat Quinn all supported it. They rounded up the votes and finally got the bill passed. Undoubtedly, the argument they used was that this was the ethical thing to do for all of Illinois.
But, if the majority acted ethically, it does not mean that the legislators who voted against the bill were unethical. They had counter arguments that were valid for them. Several claimed that the reforms would hurt state employees and retirees in their districts, but if you think about it, that is really not an ethical argument. In how many legislative and senate districts are a majority of the constituent’s state employees or retirees? To act solely in the interest of a minority would, in this case, harm the interests of the majority who have to bear the burden of the monumental debt the pension system has helped create.
But now that the bill has passed, there is a hue and cry against it. Labor leaders are carrying on about how their members are being hurt. One labor coalition claims that because the 3 percent automatic annual cost of living increase is being taken away from retirees, the result will be disastrous. They say that a teacher with a $48,000 a year pension will receive $313,000 less over a period of 25 years. This is absurd! Where did they get a number like that? The actual loss would be $52,575.
And it is not clear at all that the cost of living adjustment will be taken away. The bill says “the automatic annual increase in retirement annuity will be based on a participant’s years of service . . . which more accurately reflects changes in the cost of living.” Granted, that is an illogical statement — what is the connection between years of service and cost of living? But even so, the wording definitely indicates there will be cost of living increases for retirees.
Frankly, Illinoisans have known for some time that something like this overhaul had to be done. I’ll bet that down in their hearts, most state employees and retirees — even union leaders — know this. A lot of the opposition to the bill is political posturing by people who have known all along that some kind of reform was absolutely necessary.
Sure, retirees, of whom I am one, are not going to like having their 3 percent guaranteed cost of living increase replaced with some kind of sliding scale, but we will just have to live with it. It’s for the greater good — another example of ethics.
And it could be a lot worse. The legislature could have made retirees pay state income tax.
Also, some people are not going to like working several years more before they retire. That will be a hardship for employees with physically demanding jobs, but maybe something can be worked out for them. The age of 65 for retirement was set 80 years ago. People are living longer these days and are capable of working more years. Many are already doing it.
We will have to wait for the courts to determine the constitutionality of the pension changes. The constitution provides that state retirees’ benefits shall not be diminished. Exactly what that means is for the courts to decide. I have always thought that constitutional questions should be put to the same ethical test as others — what is best for the greatest number. The framers of the state constitution never dreamed the state would ever be as deep in debt as it is. I am hopeful that the courts will find a way to accept the changes.
So, I say hats off to the Illinois General Assembly. You acted ethically.
DAVID CONRAD of Murphysboro is retired as a professor of history from SIU Carbondale and the author of several books.