CHICAGO — Illinois Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka said Thursday that she has no choice but to withhold lawmakers’ paychecks, citing a precedent-setting court case that bars her from paying state employees without a budget appropriation or court order.
Gov. Pat Quinn cut $13.8 million for legislators’ paychecks from a budget bill earlier this month, saying it wouldn’t be restored until lawmakers addressed the state’s $97 billion pension shortfall. He also suspended his own pay.
Topinka undertook a legal review to determine if Quinn’s actions were constitutional. She said Thursday that Attorney General Lisa Madigan’s office advised her of the case that appears to bar her from acting.
“It is my deep hope that this matter is resolved expeditiously,” either by a court or by lawmakers agreeing on a solution to the pension crisis, Topinka said, adding that “given the serious precedent that is being created,” she looks forward to a court opinion.
She also called the matter “no way to run government.”
“Threats, blackmail and inertia may be good theater, but it makes us look ridiculous and takes away from our ability to get things done,” she said. “It is time for leaders to lead.”
Lawmakers are scheduled to receive their next paychecks on Aug. 1.
A provision of the Illinois Constitution says changes in lawmaker salary should not take effect during the term in which they were elected. But Quinn cited the prior court ruling and said he isn’t changing their salary, just withholding the money to pay it.
Quinn, a Chicago Democrat who used his line-item veto power in a budget bill to suspend the pay as a way to spur lawmakers to action, issued a statement saying Topinka came to the right conclusion.
“Nobody should be paid until the job gets done for taxpayers,” Quinn said.
Lawmakers, who receive an annual salary of $67,000 and additional pay for leadership positions, would have to vote to reject his changes if they want to get paid.
Illinois has nearly $100 billion in unfunded pension liability — the worst in the nation — because lawmakers either skipped or shorted payments to the state’s five retirement systems for decades. Inaction on solving the pension problem has led to repeated credit rating downgrades while governors from other states have used it as a basis to poach jobs from Illinois.
Quinn has made it his top issue for about two years, called special sessions and set deadlines for lawmakers, but with little success. A bipartisan panel is currently looking at possible solutions after the House and Senate remained deadlocked on an approach.
Quinn has hinted at the possibility of a special session on pensions when lawmakers are in Springfield next month for the Illinois State Fair.