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Sweet gig for chairmen, sour gig for public

Taxpayers get little work from certain bosses of committees

Published: Monday, July 8, 2013 1:15 a.m. CDT

SPRINGFIELD – Imagine being paid $10,327 to show up for just one meeting.

Most people would call that a pretty sweet gig – unless you’re the one footing the bill.

It is Illinois taxpayers who are paying $10,327 to House committee chairmen who have little or nothing to do. That money comes on top of their base salary of $67,936.

Committee chairmanships are doled out by House Speaker Mike Madigan, D-Chicago, as a form of political patronage designed to cement loyalty between rank-and-file members and himself, said Mike Lawrence, former director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University.

House committees conduct the initial review of legislation.

Bills are initially debated in committee, and members of the group vote on whether legislation is worthy to be forwarded to the full House for further consideration.

“It’s not just about the money, it’s about the prestige of being a committee chair and being able to go back to your district and tell voters that you are chairing a committee,” Lawrence said.

Lawrence added offering chairmanships and leadership positions are just two examples of a bevy of tools legislative leaders use to reward fidelity to those in charge.

The number of committees has multiplied over the years, a move that has made it harder for people to follow what is going on within the General Assembly, he added.

“With nearly 60 committees, the 118-member Illinois House has an excessive and convoluted committee structure,” a House GOP caucus report said 2 years ago.

The Republican caucus called for reducing the number of committees by half, but the suggestion was ignored by Madigan, said Sara Wojcicki Jimenez, spokesperson for House GOP Leader Tom Cross.

An analysis conducted by Illinois News Network found 13 House committees had been assigned 10 or fewer bills during this year’s legislative session. And some other committees were assigned no bills whatsoever.

But despite having little or no work to do, these committee chairmen continue to be paid extra.

One of those committees was the Small Business Empowerment & Workforce Development Committee chaired by state Rep. LaShawn Ford, D-Chicago.

Ford’s committee considered no bills this year and met for discussion purposes only.

And yet, he was paid $10,327 to chair the committee. State Rep. David Reis, R-Willow Hill, who was the Republican spokesman on the committee, also received $10,327 for serving on the board that voted on nothing.

“I would chair this committee – even if I didn’t get paid,” Ford told INN in a recent interview. “I think committee chairmen ought to get paid more because they do more work.”

He added that because he also chairs the Restorative Justice Committee, he would be collecting a $10,327 chairman stipend anyway. Only one chairman stipend is given out per year – even if a representative chairs more than one committee.

Ford is currently under federal indictment for bank fraud.

“The committee structure is determined by leadership – not by us,” Jimenez said. “Our role is simply to assign a Republican spokesman for each committee along with Republican committee members.”

Jimenez declined to speculate on why Madigan has created such an elaborate committee system with so many committee chairmanships.

“You’ll have to ask Mr. Madigan,” she said.

Madigan spokesman Steve Brown said committee chairmanships and minority spokesman positions are recognition for legislative accomplishment.

“Generally, they get these positions when they are in their third term in the House,” Brown said. “It is recognition that they now know how things work. As for whether it creates some special bond between legislators and leadership, I’d just say that in more than 99 percent of cases, legislators vote the way their districts want them to.”

As for why the House has so many committees, Brown said, “That’s the way members of the General Assembly want it.”

But not everyone believes this is good public policy.

Note to readers – Scott Reeder’s column is underwritten by the Illinois Policy Institute.

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