SPRINGFIELD — The leaders of the Illinois House and Senate sued Gov. Pat Quinn on Tuesday over his decision to eliminate the salaries of state lawmakers.
In a 12-page complaint filed in Cook County court, House Speaker Michael Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton said the governor’s July 10 veto of salaries is an unconstitutional maneuver that must be checked in order to keep future governors from trying the tactic.
“Not since Governor (Rod) Blagojevich attempted to reduce the salaries of Illinois judges in 2003 have the actions of the executive branch so threatened the independence of a co-equal branch of government,” the lawsuit notes.
Quinn, who was Blagojevich’s running mate when the judges won their 2003 case to receive cost-of-living increases, used his veto pen to strike out funding for lawmaker salaries, arguing that they should not be paid until they fix the state’s pension problems.
In a joint letter, Madigan and Cullerton said future governors could employ the same tactic to threaten the General Assembly, judges or other statewide officials in order to push through his or her own pet projects.
“In this case, the governor is seeking changes to the pension system, but next time it could be tax policy, gun control, or education reform. The possibilities are endless,” the two Chicago Democrats added.
The move comes two days before lawmakers would normally have been paid for the month of July.
With no paychecks, some have inquired about getting short-term loans. Others have outside employment to augment the loss of their state pay.
Lawmakers receive a base salary of $67,836 but often make at least $10,000 more for serving in various leadership positions.
Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka last week said she can’t pay the salaries unless the veto is overridden or a judge orders her to write the checks.
In a statement, Quinn called the lawsuit “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,” he said. “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.”
In the suit, Madigan and Cullerton argue the Illinois Constitution protects the salaries of members of the judiciary, the legislature and the executive branch and should not be tampered with during the middle of a term in office.
“These provisions were added to safeguard the people from a weakened judiciary, to ensure the legislature could not diminish the power of the executive, and to prohibit the governor from running roughshod over the legislature,” they said in the letter.
“Just as it would be inappropriate for the General Assembly to refuse to appropriate a constitutional officer’s salary simply because we disagree with his or her philosophy, it is no less offensive for the governor to attempt to withhold legislators’ salaries because they have not complied with his demand for action on a particular issue,” the two added.
Quinn contended he’s on solid legal footing.
“My action to suspend the appropriation for legislative pay is clearly within the express provisions of the Illinois Constitution,” he noted. “Legislators should not be rewarded for an endless cycle of promises, excuses, delay and inertia on the pension problem.”
A special committee of lawmakers has been meeting in recent weeks in an effort to hammer out a pension compromise, but there is no set date for the General Assembly to return to action.
A coalition of labor unions issued a statement restating its contention that the Illinois Constitution bars lawmakers from diminishing the pension benefits of retirees.
“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,” the We Are One coalition noted in a statement.