SPRINGFIELD — It easily could be 2016 before Illinoisans know whether new changes to the state’s pension systems are legal, a University of Illinois law professor said Friday.
John D. Colombo, the university’s Albert E. Jenner Jr. Professor of Law, said there is a chance a looming lawsuit over the controversial changes enacted into law Thursday could be put on a judicial fast track.
But, even with an expedited schedule, the legal wheels could turn slowly.
“I would not expect a final decision on this case from the (Illinois) Supreme Court for at least a year after the initial lawsuit is filed, and it could easily take longer than that — 18 months or two years would not surprise me,” Colombo said in an interview posted by the university’s news bureau Friday.
The prediction comes days after Illinois lawmakers approved a major overhaul of the state’s public-sector retirement systems designed to eventually erase a $100 billion shortfall.
Among the most significant changes is a reduction in cost-of-living adjustments from a 3 percent increase compounded annually to one based on a lower pension amount.
Teachers, university employees and other government workers now under the age of 46 also would have to work longer.
But because the Illinois Constitution says employee pension benefits cannot be diminished, labor unions representing state workers are girding for a lawsuit challenging the sweeping changes.
Colombo and Laurie Reynolds, the U of I Prentice H. Marshall Professor of Law, suggested the Illinois Supreme Court could go either way in its final decision.
Reynolds said the court gave a nod to the importance of legislative discretion in a 1998 pension case and could again in a challenge of the new law.
“I think that the earlier case shows the court’s deference to legislative prerogative, and I expect that that deference might well apply to tip the scale in favor of judicial approval of this delicate political victory that is supposed to solve Illinois’ fiscal woes, or at least most of them,” Reynolds noted.
Colombo, on the other hand, said it is hard not to see how a reduction in COLA benefits for retirees could not be seen as a diminishment of benefits.
But trying to predict what the high court will do is mostly a guessing game, he said.
“Until they decide, we’re all just purely speculating,” Colombo said.
In the meantime, Colombo said the situation likely will be a “mess” because people on the cusp of retiring won’t have a clear idea of what kind of benefits they will be receiving.
“So the next two years are going to be unsettling at best, whether a court issues an injunction against the new law or not,” he said. “I suspect that most people would delay retirement until they know what the rules really are.”