CHICAGO – Gov. Pat Quinn suspended Illinois lawmakers' pay Wednesday, following through on his warning of consequences if they failed to come up with a solution to the state's nearly $100 billion pension crisis, the worst of any state nationwide.
The Chicago Democrat said he used his line-item veto power in a budget bill that was on his desk, and vowed to not accept a salary himself until a deal has been reached. Lawmakers, who receive an annual salary of $68,000 and additional pay for leadership positions, would have to vote to reject his changes if they want to get paid.
Quinn, who has made pension reform his main focus for nearly two years, said he wanted to spur lawmakers into action.
"They must have that alarm bell ringing in their ears and the best way to do that is to hit them in the wallet," he said at a news conference in downtown Chicago.
Legislators, whose relationship with the governor has grown increasingly tense in recent weeks, said Quinn's actions wouldn't help matters – and could make an already politically difficult situation worse. The Democrat-controlled General Assembly has been unable to agree on how to address pension shortfall, despite years of trying.
"Instead of giving us leadership on this issue, he's giving us political games," said Sen. Matt Murphy, who sits on a bipartisan panel trying to forge a compromise on the issue.
Senate President John Cullerton, also a Chicago Democrat, called it "political grandstanding."
Republican Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka said later Wednesday she's seeking a legal review to determine if what Quinn did is constitutional.
Illinois has nearly $100 billion in unfunded pension liability because lawmakers either skipped or shorted payments to the state's five retirement systems for decades. Inaction on solving the problem has led to repeated credit rating downgrades while governors from other states have used it as a basis to poach jobs from Illinois.
Quinn set numerous hard deadlines, including two special sessions, for lawmakers to resolve the crisis, but none have produced any results. Members of a bipartisan panel charged with finding a compromise blew past another deadline Tuesday, saying they needed more time to crunch numbers and try to work out a deal that can get legislative approval. Quinn had warned there would be consequences for lawmakers although he had not outlined what he planned to do.
"I've tried everything in the book to get their attention," he said. "But it's time now for the legislature to legislate."
The lawmakers' next paychecks are due Aug. 1, so if they don't act by then, they won't get paid.
Quinn said Illinois taxpayers have paid for legislators' lack of action on the pension crisis. Taxpayers had to pay at least $130 million extra in interest payments for a bond sale last month because of the lowered credit ratings.
"I think the taxpayers are on my side here," Quinn said.
The governor's actions come as he prepares for a 2014 re-election bid, and desperately needs to either resolve the biggest issue facing the state or deflect the blame for not getting a pension solution through the Legislature.
Taking on the General Assembly also could be a way for Quinn, who has seen his approval ratings sink, to further stress the populist, political outsider credentials on which he has successfully campaigned in other elections.
Former White House chief of staff Bill Daley has said he'll challenge the governor in a Democratic primary, and at least four Republicans have said they will try to unseat him.
Quinn cut about $13.8 million – the amount allocated for lawmakers salaries – from a larger budget bill that gives the Illinois comptroller the ability to issue paychecks to state employees.
Topinka said questions have been raised about whether Quinn is violating a provision of the state constitution that says changes in salary can't take effect during a lawmaker's current term. She said the legal review she's requested will be complete before the Aug. 1 payday.
The governor says a 1985 court ruling confirmed that his authority to reduce or veto parts of a budget bill extends to the line-item veto of state officials' salaries. He also noted he's not changing legislators' salaries, just withholding the money.
The bill is HB214.
Tareen reported from Springfield, Ill.