CHICAGO - The Illinois Supreme Court on March 2 ordered that four pending lawsuits challenging the legality of the state's pension overhaul be consolidated and handled by the Sangamon County Circuit Court.

Three of the lawsuits were filed in Sangamon County, home of the state capital Springfield, and the other in Cook County Circuit Court. The Cook lawsuit will be moved and all four consolidated, according to the order.

The state had sought to consolidate the complaints and most of the complaint filers agreed.

The lawsuits followed the enactment in early December of a sweeping pension overhaul.

Illinois' general obligation ratings have slid to the lowest among the 50 states due to its unfunded pension obligations of more than $100 billion and rising annual payments. Backers of the pension overhaul say it help turn the state's finances around by saving the state about $145 billion in contributions over the next 30 years.

The four lawsuits argue that the changes violate the state constitution's provisions giving contract status to pension benefits and protecting them against impairment or from being diminished.

The state counters that the legislation provides "consideration" for the negative changes by stabilizing the pension system and reducing employee contributions.

A broad coalition of Illinois public employee unions accused the state of pension "theft" in its lawsuit, which seeks to overturn the legislation before it takes effect in June. The We Are One coalition is the largest of the four lawsuits in terms of the number of unions and plaintiffs represented.

The legislation limits cost-of-living increases, caps pensionable salaries, and raises the retirement age for some while cutting employee contributions by 1%, shifting contribution calculations to a more actuarially sound method, and gives the pension funds enforcement rights over state payments.

Most of the lawsuits name the state, Gov. Pat Quinn, other constitutional officers, and the pension funds as defendants.

Union officials believe the total class of active and retired members of the retirement system impacted may be around 621,000.

Much of the expected savings from the pension overhaul stem from changes to the automatic cost-of-living increases annuitants now receive. Illinois likely will argue that those automatic increases are not constitutionally protected.

The Arizona Supreme Court last month ruled that efforts to curb cost-of-living increases for retired judges and elected officials are unconstitutional. Arizona and Illinois are among states with stringent constitutional protections for public pensions.

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