By Jamey Dunn
Democratic legislative leaders filed a lawsuit today to halt Gov. Pat Quinn’s move to suspend lawmakers’ pay until a pension reform bill is passed.
Quinn used his veto pen earlier this month to strike out the money for lawmakers’ pay from the budget. At the time House Speaker Michael Madigan’s public reaction to Quinn’s decision was not negative. He noted that lawmakers had made much effort to try to get pension legislation passed. “The governor’s decision follows my efforts, and I understand his frustration. I am hopeful his strategy works,” Madigan said in a prepared statement. Senate President John Cullerton called Quinn’s splashy strategy “unproductive.”
Today, both leaders are the plaintiffs in a lawsuit against Quinn claiming that his move to cut off paychecks is unconstitutional. In a letter to lawmakers, they called Quinn’s action “purely political” and an “unconstitutional attempt to coerce the legislature to comply with his demands.”
The suit says that if the governor were allowed to cut lawmakers’ pay, it would break down the separation of powers between the branches of government because any governor going forward could hold paychecks hostage to extort votes from legislators.
“If the governor’s line-item veto is upheld, the independence of each member of the General Assembly will be forever compromised. Any governor will hold a trump card over a co-equal branch of government, attempting to bend the members of the General Assembly to his or her will with the threat of eliminating their salaries, which for some legislators is their only source of income,” the complaint says. “In this particular instance, Gov. Quinn has stated that his dispute with the General Assembly is over the lack of pension reform legislation. Next time, it may be gun control or abortion rights or tax policy.”
Quinn defended his veto again today. “My action to suspend the appropriation for legislative pay is clearly within the express provisions of the Illinois Constitution,” he said in a written statement. Quinn also is not taking a paycheck.
The Illinois Constitution does address the salaries of lawmakers, as well as those of constitutional officers and judges. The document says that salaries cannot be changed during their terms. From the legislative article: “A member shall receive salary and allowances as provided by law, but changes in the salary of the member shall not take effect during the term for which he has been elected.”
However, the Constitution also states that the governor may “reduce or veto any item of appropriation in a bill presented to him.” Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka said last week that she did not have the authority to pay lawmakers with out the appropriation, which Quinn had vetoed. She said that the only way legislators would get paid is if they voted to override the veto or a judge ordered that they get their checks.
Madigan and Cullerton likely do not want an override vote because continuing in the standard process would be tacit acknowledgement that the veto was legitimate and constitutionally sound. “The purpose of this lawsuit is to protect the independence of the legislature and preserve the separation of powers. It is our hope that the court will remedy this constitutional violation and that future governors will not feel empowered to use such coercive tactics,” they said in their letter.
Quinn said that instead of focusing their efforts on a lawsuit, lawmakers should be working on formulating changes to the pensions system that can pass in both chambers. “Today's lawsuit filed by two members of the Illinois General Assembly is just plain wrong. If legislators had put forth the same effort to draw up a pension reform agreement that they did in crafting this lawsuit, pension reform could have been done by now. Instead of focusing on resolving the state's pension crisis — which is costing taxpayers millions of dollars a day — legislators have chosen to focus on their own paychecks and waste taxpayer time and money on this lawsuit. Legislators should not be rewarded for an endless cycle of promises, excuses, delay and inertia on the pension problem.”
Members of a special committee that is working on pension reform say they are making real progress. However, they say that it may be mid-August or later before the have a proposal to present to the General Assembly at large. Barring immediate court action, lawmakers will miss a their first paycheck under the veto this Thursday. Credit Union 1, which serves state employees, has offered to loan lawmakers half of their $68,000 monthly base salaries for 60 days. Non-members would have to join the credit union and would be charged interest on the loans.
Quinn said he plans to fight the issue in court. “I will defend the interest of Illinois taxpayers in the courts. Nobody should be paid until the pension reform job gets done for taxpayers.”
Union leaders took the lawsuit as a chance to remind lawmakers that public workers’ pension benefits are also protected by the state's Constitution. “Today, legislative leaders sued over the constitutionality of Governor Pat Quinn’s line item veto of legislators’ salaries. We remind lawmakers that the entirety of the Illinois Constitution must be upheld for all citizens, including public employees and retirees — teachers, police, nurses, caregivers, and others — whose modest pensions are protected in Article XIII, Section 5,” said a written statement from the We Are One Coalition. The coalition called on lawmakers to support the union-backed proposal, Senate Bill 2404. “Legislators take an oath to support this constitutional provision — just as they promise to support all constitutional provisions equally. Lawmakers must not cherry-pick or apply a double standard in determining what parts of the Constitution should be defended. They shouldn't adhere to the Constitution only when it's convenient.”