Perhaps one of the best examples for successful reform is Arizona’s recent effort, where the state amended its constitution and passed pension reforms to, as Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey described it, set its public safety “pension system on a path to financial stability while improving the way it serves our brave cops and firefighters.”
No federal challenges to Arizona’s reforms have been made – which is part of a longstanding pattern nationally. Dozens of states over the past several decades have reformed their public pension systems as problems became apparent over the years. None has been sued successfully under the U.S. Constitution – whether under the contract clause or any other provision – in all that time.
Which is why every politician and every voter in Illinois ought to know how Arizona managed its 2016 reform of the 48% funded Public Safety Personnel Retirement System, which had a cost-of-living adjustment calculation that everyone agreed was broken, including the unions themselves. But Arizona shares with Illinois a constitutional protection against pension changes, specifically stating that “public retirement systems shall not be diminished or impaired.”
So how did they implement this change? In a two-step process, the legislature passed reform legislation and then placed on the ballot a constitutional amendment which inserted a new clause into the state constitution: “Public retirement systems shall not be diminished or impaired, except that certain adjustments to the public safety personnel retirement system may be made as provided in Senate Bill 1428, as enacted by the fifty-second legislature, second regular session.”
This meant that the citizens of Arizona could vote on this pension change without having to worry about whether they were authorizing any unknown future changes to pensions that they might not have wanted.