CHICAGO – An Illinois Supreme Court decision earlier this week that could double a union lobbyist's pension because he worked one day as a substitute teacher more deeply entrenches the state's pension crisis, an advocate for transparency in government said during a recent interview.
"Sadly, the highest court in Illinois has just reaffirmed that public pension benefits, once conferred, are ironclad," Open the Books CEO and Founder Adam Andrzejewski told Cook County Record. "Even in the extreme case in which one day worked in the public schools resulted in a potential $1 million lifetime public pension payout, the court ruled against the taxpayer."
The decision also all but pulls the plug of pension reform in Illinois, Andrzejewski said.
"This does not bode well for pension reform," he said. "We see this as further entrenchment of corrupt processes and practices."
Open The Books CEO and Founder Adam Andrzejewski Photo courtesy of Adam Andrzejewski
In its split 4-3 opinion issued Thursday, Illinois' highest court rejected a prior Sangamon County Circuit Court ruling that a 2007 amendment to existing pension law violated the state's constitutional special legislation prohibition.
"Since the 2007 amendment is not special legislation and the circuit court did not invalidate the law on any other constitutional grounds, we hold that it confers a pension benefit protected by our state constitution," the high court said in its opinion.
Justice Anne Burke penned the opinion in which Chief Justice Lloyd Karmeier and Justice P. Scott Neville Jr. and Justice Thomas Kilbride concurred.
In a sharply worded dissent joined by Justices Rita Garman and Justice Robert Thomas, Justice Mary Jane Theis maintained that "the optics created by the facts of this case are not great" but that the court's majority "whitewashes those facts."
The court's decision means that David Piccioli, now 69, may continue his 2015 case in the circuit court against the Board of Trustees of the Teachers’ Retirement System and his annual pension of about $35,500 may double. The majority decision effectively upholds the 2007 amendment that had been written to benefit only certain teachers' union employees in certain situations in a way that now extend those provisions to all, Theis wrote in her dissent.
"Slamming a window shut before it ever opened smacks of special legislation," Theis said. "The trial court correctly held that the 2007 amendment violated the special legislation clause. Because I would hold that the 2007 amendment was unconstitutional, I would also hold that it conferred no rights for the pension protection clause to protect."
Andrzejewski previously wrote about Piccioli and fellow lobbyist Stephen Preckwinkle. In a 2014 piece published in Forbes, Andrzejewski, then a journalist, described how Piccioli and Preckwinkle expected to collect almost $1 million in state teacher retirement pensions from the state's severely underfunded system after they substitute taught for one day.
It seems that not much has changed since 2014, Andrzejewski told Cook County Record.
"It goes without saying that the pension crisis in Illinois is one of the worst," he said. "The nearly 600 local and state pension systems, collectively, have a quarter trillion unfunded liability according to Moody's. There are only 13 million people in the state and so a family of four has a $80,000 share."