SPRINGFIELD, Ill. -- A union lobbyist who worked just one day as a substitute teacher is entitled to a pension worth potentially tens of thousands of dollars annually, the state Supreme Court ruled Thursday in an opinion reinforcing its position that retirement benefits promised to public workers can't be "diminished or impaired."
The 4-3 decision affected just one member of the Teachers' Retirement System but solidified the high court's previous finding that public-pension benefits are guaranteed under the state constitution. It's an opinion that has flummoxed lawmakers attempting to close a $134 billion shortfall in the cash-strapped state's pension systems.
David Piccioli was a lobbyist for the Illinois Federation of Teachers from 1997 to 2012. A 2007 law allowed officers of the IFT and the Illinois Education Association to receive teachers' pensions for service in the union by qualifying for a teacher's certificate, working in a classroom and paying past-owed employee contributions with interest.
Piccioli earned a certificate, worked as a substitute teacher in a Springfield elementary school for one day in January 2007, and paid $193,000 to TRS for contributions he owed for the previous 10 years, qualifying him for the pension.
Justice Anne Burke, writing for the majority, said the fact that the General Assembly reversed the law in 2012 following reports by the Chicago Tribune and WGN-TV is immaterial. The constitution bars action that would cause established pensions to be "diminished or impaired" and Piccioli followed the law as it stood.
"While nothing prevented the Legislature from eliminating this benefit for future employees, there is no legal justification for reducing or eliminating the pension benefits plaintiff was awarded," Burke wrote. A dissent by three justices countered that the law amounted to disqualifying "special legislation."
Piccioli said Thursday he was uncertain how much the additional TRS pension would be. He already receives a $35,436 TRS pension for work after his certification. In 2017, when a Sangamon County circuit judge declared the prior-service pension unconstitutional, Piccioli estimated it was worth about $36,000 annually. He also receives a $33,780 annual pension for 10 years' work on the Illinois House staff.
He said he is "pleased the court agreed that the government may not unilaterally wipe out a lawfully obtained state pension. Without this ruling, the Illinois Constitution's pension-protection clause would be a hollow promise."
The court relied on that critical clause when it decided in May 2015 that a legislative plan to spare pension costs by reducing benefits was unconstitutional. Current law requires full pension funding by 2045, meaning state contributions of $9 billion this year — out of a $39 billion operating budget — and more in subsequent years.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker has proposed raising extra money for pensions by borrowing, selling state assets, and using additional revenue from a progressive tax system which would require a constitutional amendment. Even then, he wants to stretch the payoff date to 2052.
The court in Piccioli's case divided over the issue of whether the 2007 law was constitutionally barred "special legislation." Burke, joined by three other justices, concluded it was not because the Legislature is permitted to write laws with specific timelines and cutoff dates. Justice Mary Jane Theis and two colleagues dissented, noting the law required teacher certification qualification be completed before the law took effect.
And documents showed one union official promised to seek delay of the governor's signature to provide enough time to comply for those pursuing certification.
"Slamming a window shut before it ever opened smacks of special legislation," Theis wrote.
The case is Piccioli v. TRS.
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