CHICAGO — Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn wants a judge to stop legislators from being paid while he appeals a court ruling that such a hold — imposed by the governor as a consequence of inaction on the state’s massive pension crisis — was unconstitutional.
Attorneys for Quinn were scheduled to appear before Cook County Circuit Judge Neil Cohen Friday morning, one day after Cohen ordered Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka to immediately pay legislators the two monthly paychecks they’ve missed since the governor’s July veto.
But the governor’s request for a stay of Cohen’s order may come too late.
Topinka, a Republican who controls the state’s checkbook, said late Thursday her office already was processing the checks and that lawmakers with direct deposit should have money in their bank accounts Friday morning.
Paper checks also would be in the mail, she said. She also criticized the Democratic governor for what she called “game playing.”
Topinka’s quick action brought a rebuke from Quinn’s office.
“We’re disappointed that she started to issue paychecks,” said Quinn spokeswoman Brooke Anderson. “Her enthusiasm to hand out paychecks to legislators appears to exceed her interest in public pension reform.”
Lawmakers make an annual base salary of about $67,000, plus bonuses for serving in leadership.
Quinn used his line-item veto to cut $13.1 million for lawmaker salaries from the state budget because he was angry they had not yet found a fix for Illinois’ nearly $100 billion pension shortfall. He also refused to accept his own paychecks, which Topinka said have been piling up on her desk.
House Speaker Michael Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton sued, saying their fellow Chicago Democrat had violated the separation of powers between the legislative and executive branches. They also argued a provision of the Illinois Constitution says lawmakers’ pay cannot be changed during their current term in office.
The governor said that if legislators want to be paid, they could return to Springfield and vote to override the veto.
— a move he acknowledged could be unpopular with voters. He argued that the section of the constitution that says lawmaker salaries can’t be changed was intended to mean they couldn’t be increased, but that cuts were OK.
Cohen disagreed, saying the word “change” is clearly understood to mean an increase or a decrease.
In a statement after the ruling, Quinn said the case was about more than his authority to suspend paychecks. He said no one in Springfield should be paid until they approve legislation to address a public pension system that’s the worst funded of any state in the nation.
“Illinois’ pension crisis is costing taxpayers millions of dollars a day, robbing our children of the education and public safety services they desperately need and holding our economy back from real recovery,” he said.
The pension problem is due largely to years of legislators not making their full annual payments to the funds. This year, that payment is about $6 billion — almost one-fifth of the state’s general fund budget and an amount that has led to substantial cuts in areas such as education and public safety.
Yet lawmakers have been unable to come up with a fix.
After Quinn threatened unnamed “consequences” for their continued inaction, legislators voted in June to form a bipartisan conference committee to try to hammer out a deal. That bipartisan panel is considering a framework that would end automatic cost-of-living increases for workers and retirees.
But any proposal must be approved by both chambers of the Legislature, where consensus has been difficult, and public employee unions already have said they oppose the framework.
Cullerton said Thursday that the judge’s decision “vindicated” the constitution.
“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,” he said. “Pension reform remains our top priority. Even while this case was pending, the legislature never stopped working on this issue.”