A judge says Governor Pat Quinn went too far this summer when he blocked paychecks for Illinois lawmakers. Members of the General Assembly have missed two paydays so far, and it's not clear when they'll get their money. The governor stands by his actions, saying it's his best option for cajoling the General Assembly into overhauling the state's pension systems. As IPR's Brian Mackey reports, Quinn says he plans to appeal.
Quinn has been talking about pensions for a long time. Illinois is short nearly $100 billion in future payouts for retired state workers, university employees and public school teachers. In the past few years, Quinn set deadline after deadline, which legislators repeatedly ignored. People began to wonder whether he would ever follow through with consequences. This summer, facing not one, but two potential Democratic rivals for his job, Quinn finally did something about it.
"The legislators should not get paid until they enact comprehensive public pension reform."
Standing before a bank of Chicago TV cameras, Quinn used his veto power to eliminate all the money for legislators' salaries from the budget. He left his own salary intact, although he hasn't collected his paychecks. This was in July, at a time when a special legislative committee had already been negotiating a pension compromise for several weeks.
"They must have that alarm bell ringing in their ears, and the best way to do that is to hit them in the wallet."
So lawmakers have missed two of their monthly paydays so far, and a third one is coming up next week. Many have outside jobs as lawyers or with other units of government. But for others, the roughly $68,000 salary is their only income. There's also the question of the separation of powers -- the idea that the General Assembly gets to decide whether to pass a new law. What if some future governor decided to use a similar tactic -- blocking salaries until the legislature, say, outlawed abortion or banned firearms? With those hypotheticals in mind, House Speaker Michael Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton sued the governor. Back in July, Cullerton's spokeswoman Rikeesha Phelon said Quinn's action was a "clear abuse of power."
"The purpose of the lawsuit is to continue to protect the independence of the legislature. The purpose of the lawsuit is to preserve the separation of powers, and we're hoping that a court will be able to remedy the situation."
Fast forward nearly two months, and that's exactly what happened -- Cook County Judge Neil Cohen says Quinn violated the Illinois Constitution. The case came down to a provision that says "changes" in legislators' salaries cannot take place until after the next election. The key word there is "changes" -- Quinn says that only means the legislature can't give itself an immediate pay raise. Madigan and Cullerton argue "changes" can mean increases or decreases -- in this case to zero. Judge Cohen agreed, even citing two dictionaries in defining "change." He ordered Illinois Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka to "immediately" pay the senators and representatives -- with interest. Topinka didn't waste any time.
"Now this afternoon, I instructed my staff to comply with that order, and begin immediately processing the legislators' checks."
Topinka says some lawmakers could get their money today. Or maybe not.
"Well, we are appealing the case today."
The governor spoke to reporters last night at an event in Chicago. At a hearing today his lawyers are expected to ask Judge Cohen to delay his order -- so legislators do not get paid as Quinn appeals. He's planning to take the case directly to the Illinois Supreme Court.
"I think it is important to remember the fundamental principle on why I acted to suspend the appropriation for legislative pay, and that's to pass a pension reform."
What Quinn didn't say is that he's also campaigning to keep his job. He mentions his populist veto all the time -- and it's arguably the most significant thing he's done to urge a pension overhaul. So what about that? Members of the special pension committee continue to meet, and say they're still making progress. Rep. Elaine Nekritz, a Democrat from Northbrook, says Quinn's veto has not mattered.
"The action by the governor did not really impact our discussions, our negotiations, or our timing. And I think the same holds true today."
Regardless of what happens in the court case, if the legislature finally agrees on some sort of pension fix, Quinn is sure to claim credit for prodding them into action. It's just as likely that lawmakers -- angry with the governor over his posturing -- will try to deny him that credit. It's another layer of politics on what's already the most contentious issue in Illinois government.
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