By Rick Pearson, Tribune reporter
7:58 p.m. CDT, July 10, 2013
“Accelerating an increasingly bitter feud with the General Assembly, Gov. Pat Quinn suspended the pay of state lawmakers Wednesday, saying he believed the best way for legislators to reach a long-sought fix to Illinois’ massive public worker pension debt was to “hit them in the wallet.”
Quinn used his veto powers to zero-out the $13.8 million budget for legislative salaries and leadership stipends, effectively eliminating the state’s ability to send lawmakers their Aug. 1 paychecks. The governor said that until now taxpayers — not lawmakers — have had to pay for the legislature’s failure to resolve an unfunded pension liability that has grown to more than $100 billion through higher borrowing costs, lower credit ratings and money squeezed from social services.
“This is an emergency. This is a crisis. This requires full attention of those who are elected to the General Assembly, take an oath of office, to do the right thing for the public. For too long, we’ve had legislative inertia, delay and excuses on this paramount issue to the people of Illinois,” said Quinn. The governor, who makes $177,412 annually, said he was voluntarily suspending his own pay until the issue is resolved.
“We want to have a alarm bell for our legislators to understand that this is an emergency that demands their undivided attention. They cannot take time away and ignore this issue. They must have that alarm bell ringing in their ears and the best way to do that is to hit them in the wallet,” he said.
But many lawmakers accused Quinn of once again using his bully pulpit to engage the media rather than working directly with the General Assembly over how he wants to deal with Illinois’ underfunded public pension system, the worst in the nation.
Democratic Senate President John Cullerton, of Chicago, called Quinn’s actions “unproductive” and “political grandstanding.” He defended lawmakers’ efforts to come to grips with the state’s most vexing problem — one that is full of political and constitutional hurdles.
The fighting between the governor and the legislature echoes battles between Quinn’s predecessor, disgraced and imprisoned former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, and the Democratic-led General Assembly. On many occasions Blagojevich, under whom Quinn served as lieutenant governor, sounded populist themes while trashing lawmakers who opposed him.
Quinn did not call lawmakers into session to deal with the pension crisis. Instead, he noted that lawmakers had failed to meet several of his self-imposed deadlines for pension action — the latest on Tuesday — and contended that when powerful special political interests set deadlines, the legislature is quick to act.
“It’s interesting when Commonwealth Edison sets a deadline for the legislature, they hop to it,” Quinn said. “When the National Rifle Association sets a deadline for our legislature, they’re right on it. But what about the taxpayers? What about the people?”
Quinn’s reference to the NRA came a day after lawmakers overwhelmingly rejected his effort to add restrictions to a compromise bill that authorized the carrying of concealed firearms in the state. Illinois faced a Tuesday deadline to legalize concealed carry under a federal court ruling. Lawmakers rebuked Quinn for failing to participate directly in the gun negotiations earlier, only to later accuse them of “surrendering” to the NRA.
However, House Speaker Michael Madigan, arguably the state’s most powerful Democrat, refused Wednesday to engage in criticizing Quinn. Madigan said he understood Quinn’s “frustration” and added “I am hopeful his strategy works.”
Madigan lauded those lawmakers who backed the pension proposal he wrote that would require state workers to take more money out of their paycheck, would increase retirement ages and would scale back cost-of-living increases. Cullerton contends Madigan’s plan is unconstitutional, and Democratic senators have favored a union-backed plan that requires public workers to pay more, but gives them options to gain access to state health care in exchange for their cost of living increases.
While Madigan chose to stay out of the fight, his chamber’s point person on pension reform, Rep. Elaine Nekritz, of Northbrook, said Quinn’s actions “only serve as an unnecessary distraction.”
“Our work will continue unimpeded,” said Nekritz, who sits on a bipartisan pension conference committee of House and Senate members delegated with coming up with a solution. “We would urge the governor to join us as we push to the finish line to really do what is right for Illinois.”
Illinois lawmakers receive a base salary of $67,836, but most earn thousands more in stipends, either by being a member of the Democratic or Republican leadership or by chairing or vice chairing legislative committees.
Quinn maintained he had the legal authority to take the action under a case he was involved in years earlier, as a citizen, in which the state Supreme Court cited the governor’s ability to reduce or line-item veto any spending items in appropriation bills passed by the General Assembly.
But the court decision did not involve another provision in the state Constitution that prevents any changes in the salary of legislators during the two-year term of the General Assembly. State Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka said she was asking for a legal review of Quinn’s action before Aug. 1, when her office would next send paychecks to state lawmakers. They received their last paychecks June 29.
Attorney General Lisa Madigan, the daughter of the House speaker and a potential challenger to Quinn next year, did not provide an answer Wednesday on whether the governor has the authority to eliminate lawmakers’ pay.
“The governor’s actions raise a series of constitutional and procedural issues that have never been resolved by the courts,” attorney general spokeswoman Natalie Bauer said in an email. “We’re looking closely at them.”
The legal issue could prove to be a thorny one for the state’s top lawyer.