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No absolute pension right

Illinois will argue its case for public pension reform before the state Supreme Court on Wednesday, and probably the main point it will make is that no right is absolute.

The state Constitution on its face seems to prevent any change to state workers pensions: “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.”

But just as the First Amendment has its limits – you can’t yell “fire” in a crowded theater – so, too, should this provision. The people who wrote that guarantee weren’t faced with how to keep the state’s $110 billion in unfunded pension costs from crowding out essential government.

The state’s primary cost-saving change wouldn’t actually cut pensions, it would just slow the rate of the cost-of-living increases. Surely the justices will agree that lawmakers can do that. Otherwise, it’s programs and services that benefit the residents of Illinois that will be diminished or impaired.

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