Gov. Pat Quinn pulled the ultimate populist stunt last week and eliminated money to pay lawmakers from the new state budget.
He said they won’t get paid until they finish pension reform.
This was pretty much a no-lose situation for Quinn. Really, how many times have you heard griping that lawmakers are paid too much, usually from people who wouldn’t do the job for twice the money if they knew how much work was involved?
Still, the notion is quite popular among some that lawmakers should give up their salaries and pensions, so Quinn will be quite a hit in those circles.
Quinn said he based his move on an old biblical principle that you don’t get paid until the job is finished. Of course, there is another old biblical principle called an eye for an eye. Turnabout is fair play, not that the General Assembly would ever consider such a thing.
Just keep in mind, the governor can take money out of the budget, but he can’t put any in. So what if some particularly spiteful future General Assembly wanted to send a message to the governor?
What if they approved a new state budget that gave the governor only half of what he needed to run his executive office?
Or maybe they’re generous and provide full funding for the office but no money for the governor’s salary.
Messing with salaries like that may provide some short-term political gain, but it sure opens the door to unintended consequences.
Cutting lawmaker pay the way he did put Quinn in the middle of a constitutional conundrum.
You see, the state Constitution had a pretty clear line on the issue of lawmaker salaries. It says “changes in the salary of a member shall not take effect during the term for which he has been elected.”
Mostly, that’s a way to keep lawmakers from giving themselves mid-term raises, but some legal experts believe it works the other way as well. In other words, Quinn doesn’t have the authority to do what he did.
Interestingly, there’s some other pretty clear language in the state Constitution. It talks about how membership in a public pension system “shall be an enforceable contractual relationship, the benefits of which shall not be diminished or impaired.”
Public employee unions and others have taken this to mean some of the pension reform proposals floating around, particularly the version passed by the House, are unconstitutional because they violate this section of the Constitution.
At least Quinn appears to be consistent on this issue. He thinks the legislative-pay language doesn’t prevent him from eliminating lawmaker salaries. And he thinks the pension-protection language can be ignored in the interest of pension reform.
It’ll really be interesting if someone argues the Constitution protects lawmaker salaries but doesn’t protect pensions.
Speaking of issues that never seem to end, it looks as if concealed carry will be around a while longer.
Even before the final vote was taken, lawmakers were talking of making changes to it.
Look for that discussion to heat up again in January.
He said it
“If the governor spent as much time before the pension conference committee as he does before press conferences, the problem would be solved.”
– Rep. Lou Lang, D-Skokie, after Quinn blew off a meeting of the committee and then cut lawmaker salaries.