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Local legislators react after county judge halts implementation of state pension law

Published: Friday, May 16, 2014 2:52 p.m. CDT • Updated: Friday, May 16, 2014 4:33 p.m. CDT

The state fight for a solution to its pension problems took another turn earlier this week when a Sangamon County judge decided to delay its latest effort.

On Wednesday, Judge John Beliz ordered a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction against the reforms set out in Senate Bill 1, which cuts cost of living increases, lowers contributions required of current employees, guarantees state contributions and raises retirement ages for state workers.

There are currently several suits challenging the constitutionality of the measure signed by Gov. Pat Quinn in December. The Illinois Constitution currently states that contractual benefits of state workers "shall not be diminished or impaired."

"This is an important first step in our efforts to overturn this unfair, unconstitutional law and to protect retirement security for working and retired Illinois families," said Michael T. Carrigan, president of the Illinois AFL-CIO, in a statement on behalf of worker coalition We Are One Illinois.

Beliz ruled on a lawsuit filed by the Illinois State Employees Association Retirees and several other plaintiffs.

In his official filing, Beliz said that the there was sufficient evidence those named in the suit would "suffer irreparable harm" if the injunction was not issued. Implementation statewide will now be held until Beliz or a higher court decides on the constitutionality of the law.

"Obviously we are very pleased that the judge understood the situation that a lot of these retirees were in and their uncertainty of what was going to happen next," said Donald Craven, the lawyer for the association.

Attorney General Lisa Madigan's office, which represents the state in legal matters, defended the law to the court on Thursday with a formal response.

In it, Madigan says the retirement systems "have been underfunded for many years [and] their underfunding now greatly exceeds the state's annual budget for all categories of expenditure."

Because of the "magnitude" of the pension problem – reaching upward of $100 million in some estimates – she argues that the law is valid.

"The goal of the pension reform law is to stabilize the pension system," Madigan spokesperson Maura Possley said. "Unfortunately this decision will likely further burden the systems and hurt taxpayers."

Many legislators contacted after the decision expressed little surprise at the ruling, saying that lawmakers and proponents of the law were expecting a legal fight.

"All it does is stay the application of the law, which was stayed anyway," said Illinois House Rep. Ron Sandack, R-Downers Grove. "It was not budgeted in our 2015 budget at all because we knew there would be a series of lawsuits that will make their way up to the supreme court.

"It's merely a prudent thing [for the court] to do."

Sandack said his personal opinion is that the bill is constitutional.

"Of course my opinion is as good as yours or anyone else's who doesn't sit in one of the seven seats on the supreme court," he said.

Sen. Kirk Dillard, R-Hinsdale, expressed a similar opinion.

"We’ve known that it will be a long road through the judiciary for the state’s pension reform, so this is just one bump in the road and pension reform will ultimately be decided by the Illinois Supreme Court," Dillard said. "So this decision is not a surprise."

House Republican leader Jim Durkin, R-Western Springs, said he was pleased there was movement on the circuit court level, but that the stay shouldn't be considered a significant legal victory.

"We anticipated a tough legal challenge which is why we planned ahead and did not expect to realize any savings in Fiscal Year 2015, so this ruling has no real impact on the budget or pensions at this time," Durkin said in a statement. "Ultimately, the real question will be addressed by the Supreme Court because whoever is on the losing end of the lawsuit will appeal to the higher court.”

Reporter Ed McMenamin contributed to this story.

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