CHICAGO (AP) – Gov. Pat Quinn lost two attempts Friday to stop legislators from being paid while he appeals a court ruling that determined it was unconstitutional of him to freeze the money in an effort to get lawmakers to solve Illinois’ pension fund problem.
The first payments since July went out Friday morning to lawmakers with direct deposit, but the state had held up paper checks for 21 lawmakers and bonus money for those in leadership positions until Cook County Judge Neil Cohen decided whether the money could be withheld pending the outcome of Quinn’s appeal.
Cohen said Quinn violated the Illinois Constitution by withholding the checks when he used his line-item veto to cut $13.1 million for lawmaker salaries from the state budget.
Quinn had said he was angry that legislators hadn’t found a fix for Illinois’ nearly $100 billion pension shortfall. He also refused to accept his own paychecks. But Cohen said during Friday’s hearing that Quinn had no right to violate the constitution, no matter how benevolent his intentions.
“I do understand where his heart is,” Cohen said. “But that’s politics. That’s not the law.”
Immediately after the ruling, Quinn’s attorneys filed an emergency request to the appellate court asking it to do what Cohen would not – stop any checks from going in the mail and halt any future paychecks while the appeal is being considered. But in a one-sentence order late Friday, Appellate Judge Maureen E. Connors denied Quinn’s motion.
A spokesman for Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka said the checks for the past 2 months already were being sent, and the office had begun processing the next monthly check, scheduled to be paid Monday.
Quinn said that regardless of the ruling, he believes public opinion is on his side.
“If you don’t get (pension reform) done ... then they shouldn’t be paid,” he said. “I think that’s what the public feels. That’s what the taxpayers feel. That’s what I feel.”
Cohen on Thursday ordered Topinka to immediately pay legislators the monthly paychecks they’ve missed since the governor’s July veto. Topinka, a Republican who controls the state’s checkbook, said hours later that her office already was processing the checks.
Legislators make a base salary of about $67,000, plus bonuses for serving in leadership.
House Speaker Michael Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton sued after the governor stopped the paychecks, saying their fellow Chicago Democrat had violated the separation of powers between the legislative and executive branches. They also argued that a provision of the Illinois Constitution stated that lawmakers’ pay couldn’t be changed during their current term in office.
The governor said that if legislators wanted 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 meaning of the word “change” in the constitution clearly means both cuts and increases.
Quinn’s attorney, Steven Pflaum, argued Friday that to make any appeal meaningful, Cohen should stop Topinka from paying lawmakers. But Richard Prendergast, an attorney for Madigan and Cullerton, said doing so would “create a huge hardship” for legislators.
Illinois has the worst-funded state pension system in the nation, due mostly to years of lawmakers not making the state’s necessary contributions to the accounts. Over time, the amount that the state needed to pay to meet its obligations ballooned, reaching $6 billion this year. That’s about one-fifth of the state’s general fund budget – an amount that has meant significant cuts for schools, prisons and social services.
But even as states across the country have come up with ways to address their pension problems, Illinois lawmakers have repeatedly failed to do so. After they adjourned the legislative session in May without a deal, Quinn threatened unnamed “consequences.” Lawmakers then voted to form a bipartisan conference committee to work on the issue, but when it didn’t come up with a deal quickly enough, Quinn vetoed the money for salaries.
Committee members have said they are still working toward a deal, using a framework that would end the automatic 3 percent cost-of-living increases, compounded annually, that retirees currently receive. But public-employee unions have said they oppose that plan, which they argue is unconstitutional and unfair to workers and retirees who made their required contributions to the pension funds, even when the state did not.
Any pension deal would have to be approved by the Legislature and Quinn.