By Jamey Dunn
A judge has ordered the state to cut lawmakers' checks after Gov. Pat Quinn used his veto pen to cut off their pay. UPDATE Friday September 27: Cook County Circuit Court Judge Neil Cohen denied Quinn's request that lawmakers hold off from getting paid during Quinn's appeal of his ruling. Quinn is appealing Cohen's ruling directly to the Illinois Supreme Court and plans to go to an appellate court to seek a stay to block lawmakers' pay after Cohen denied the move today. Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka started processing checks yesterday, so some legislators, who use direct deposit, may already have the money in the bank. UPDATE: Quinn's appeal of the stay was denied by the appellate court.
Quinn cut out the money for legislators' pay because they failed to pass pension reform legislation before a deadline he set in July. “Admittedly, this is a drastic measure, but I think it’s absolutely necessary to get a wake-up call to the members of the General Assembly that the people of Illinois are tired of excuses. They’re impatient with the fact that the taxpayers pay when the General Assembly doesn’t do its pension reform job,” Quinn said when he vetoed the pay. He also stopped taking his own paychecks and vowed to do so until pensions changes reach his desk.
But Cook County Circuit Court Judge Neil Cohen ruled today that Quinn violated the state’s Constitution when he changed lawmakers’ pay during their terms in office. The legislative article of the Constitution states that “changes in the salary of a member shall not take effect during the term for which he has been elected.” Quinn said he intends to appeal the ruling.
Quinn’s lawyers argued that the provision was intended to keep lawmakers from increasing their own salaries, and as long as he was reducing them, he was constitutionally exercising his line-item veto power. Cohen did not agree. He looked to the common meaning of change as defined by Merriam Webster’s and the New Oxford American Dictionary, which describes change as “to make or become different.” The governor asked the court to consider the intent of the framers of the 1970 Constitution, but Cohen declined to do that because, he writes in his opinion, there is no “doubt as to the common meaning of changes.”
Cohen ordered state Comptroller Judy Barr Topinka to issue lawmakers’ paychecks, including interest for the time they have gone without pay. Topinka said she disagreed with Quinn’s move when he made the veto. However, she said that until there was a court ruling or the General Assembly voted to override the veto, she did not have a legal way to pay lawmakers. Topinka said today that she will begin the process immediately.
“In light of today's court ruling, I have instructed my staff to begin processing salary payments for Illinois lawmakers. I have consistently said action was required by the General Assembly or the court to authorize restoration of those payments. That has now occurred, and the comptroller's office will comply. Processing of paychecks for August, September and October begins today,” she said in a written statement.
Democratic legislative leaders House Speaker Michael Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton brought the lawsuit against Quinn. “Today, the circuit court vindicated the Illinois Constitution as Judge Cohen ruled to protect and preserve the separation of powers. Now that the governor’s actions have been answered by a court, I trust that we can put aside all distractions and focus on the goal of pension reform,” Cullerton said today in a written statement. “Pension reform remains our top priority. Even while this case was pending, the legislature never stopped working on this issue. I applaud the progress of the pension conference committee as its members shape a pension plan that maximizes our savings and upholds a fundamental standard of fairness.” A spokesperson for Madigan said in an email that the speaker does not plan to comment until the issue is resolved.
Quinn said in a written statement after the ruling that he would appeal. “I respectfully disagree with the judge’s decision,” he said. “On behalf of Illinois taxpayers, I intend to appeal the decision and seek a court stay that would prevent any legislative paychecks from being issued until this case is considered by a higher court.”
His statement went on to say: “However, this case is about far more than just the governor’s constitutional authority to suspend the appropriations for legislative paychecks The reason I suspended legislative paychecks in the first place – and refused to accept my own – is because Illinois taxpayers can’t afford an endless cycle of promises, excuses, delays and inertia on the most critical challenge of our time. ... I will not accept a paycheck until a comprehensive pension reform bill is on my desk, and neither should legislators. Nobody in Springfield should get paid until the pension reform job gets done.”
Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno said that an appeal from Quinn would be a waste of time and money. “It will be unfortunate if the decision is appealed and a further waste of taxpayer dollars. Pension reform discussions are moving along with committed legislators meeting regularly, negotiating and working toward a compromise. Illinois desperately needs pension reform. Yet another legal maneuver is a distraction we don’t need.”
Northbrook Democratic Rep. Elaine Nekritz, who has been a key player on the pension issue in the House, has said before that she thinks Quinn’s veto was counterproductive. She said that some lawmakers might fear that a vote on pension reform could look more like a vote to get their paychecks than one to address the troubled retirement systems for state employees. Nekritz said today that the conference committee, which has been working through the summer to try to craft a bill that can pass in both chambers, has done its best to ignore the pay issue. “It didn’t really impact our timeline or our work schedule or our negotiations.” Some Republicans are reportedly unhappy with the framework that the committee is considering, and Nekritz said she has decided to stop trying to predict when the group will have a finished product. “We’re still at the table. We’re still negotiating.” And she said that as long as that is the case, she is hopeful that an agreement can be reached.