CHICAGO – Leaders of the Illinois House and Senate sued Gov. Pat Quinn on Tuesday over what they called a "purely political and unconstitutional" move to block lawmaker paychecks because of inaction on the state's nearly $100 billion pension crisis.
Less than 48 hours before the first affected payday, House Speaker Michael Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton filed the 12-page complaint with the Circuit Court of Cook County.
"This matter is of fundamental constitutional importance, as Governor Quinn's action threatens the independence of each branch of government," Cullerton and Madigan said in a joint news release. "The Illinois Constitution protects the salaries of members of the judiciary, the legislature, and the executive branch."
Earlier this month, Quinn cut $13.8 million for legislators' paychecks in the state budget through his veto power. He had threatened consequences if lawmakers failed to act promptly on addressing the pension problem. When members of a bipartisan pension panel blew past another deadline the Chicago Democrat had set, he cut their salaries. Base pay for lawmakers is $67,836, though many earn more through stipends from serving in leadership posts or on committees.
The lawsuit asks the court to decide if Quinn's line-item veto really did fully eliminate lawmakers' salaries. If not, the leaders argue, Topinka should be required to pay those salaries "based on the plain language of the appropriations bill and on Illinois law." As an alternative, if the court upholds Quinn's amendatory veto, the suit asks the court to issue a declaration that Quinn's action violated the state constitution and to issue an injunction ordering Topinka to pay lawmakers' salaries "to remedy that constitutional violation."
The lawsuit compares Quinn's elimination of lawmakers' pay to a 2003 decision by his now-imprisoned predecessor, former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, to reduce the salaries of judges.
"The Illinois Supreme Court invalidated Gov. Blagojevich's actions that threatened the integrity of the judiciary, and this court should likewise invalidate Gov. Quinn's attempt to punish members of the General Assembly," the lawsuit reads.
Quinn has defended his move as constitutional. In a statement, Quinn described the lawsuit as "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," Quinn said.
Last week Illinois Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka, who is named as a defendant in Tuesday's suit, said she had no choice but to withhold lawmaker paychecks, citing a previous court case.
Topinka spokesman Brad Hahn said Tuesday the comptroller was reviewing the suit and "will hold off on further comment." Topinka has, in recent weeks, said she would welcome additional guidance from the courts.
In their statement announcing the suit to members, Cullerton and Madigan called Quinn's actions "an unconstitutional attempt to coerce the Legislature to comply with his demands."
They said that to ignore the governor's actions or override the veto would "severely and irrevocably compromise the independence of the Legislature and set a very dangerous precedent."
Illinois has unprecedented pension debt because for years lawmakers have either skipped or shorted payments to the state's five retirement systems. Quinn has made reforming the system his top priority for about two years, but attempts to find a solution have largely gone nowhere.
But the 10 members of the bipartisan pension committee have repeatedly said that pressure from Quinn won't rush their work. They say they are making progress on developing a plan to present to the Legislature but are waiting for actuarial numbers to come in.
State Rep. Elaine Nekritz, a committee member and House point person on pension reform, called the suit and the pension committee's work "apples and oranges."
"I think the basis for the lawsuit is the separation of powers which had nothing to do with pension reform," she said.
Nekritz said she knew the two leaders were considering filing the suit, but was not consulted about it.
"I do share the view that this is a very dangerous place for us to tread," Nekritz said. "And it doesn't mix with good government."