CHICAGO – A Cook County Circuit Court judge said Wednesday that his ruling will come next week on a lawsuit challenging Gov. Pat Quinn’s decision to stop lawmakers from being paid until they agree on how to deal with Illinois’ nearly $100 billion public pension problem.
House Speaker Michael Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton sued after Quinn used his line-item veto in July to cut money for legislators’ salaries from the state budget. They also asked Judge Neil Cohen to order Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka – who controls the state’s checkbook and is named in the lawsuit along with Quinn – to issue the paychecks.
During oral arguments Wednesday, attorney Richard Prendergast called Quinn’s veto “an unprecedented attempt” to fulfill his goals through coercion. He also argued the governor’s actions were unconstitutional and violated the separation of powers between the executive and legislative branches.
Quinn’s lawyers say he has the authority to veto the salaries. Attorney Steven Pflaum also said Wednesday that the lawsuit is premature. He said if legislators want to be paid, they could return to Springfield and vote to override the veto – a move Quinn has acknowledged could be unpopular with voters.
“[Madigan and Cullerton] filed this lawsuit too soon,” Pflaum said.
Quinn, a Chicago Democrat like Madigan and Cullerton, attended a portion of Wednesday’s oral arguments, but did not speak during the hearing and left the courthouse without addressing reporters. Madigan and Cullerton did not attend.
Cohen told attorneys he hasn’t made up his mind and will issue his decision by Sept. 26.
But he reserved his harshest questions for lawyers for Quinn and Topinka, asking why the comptroller didn’t go to the courts before deciding to stop the paychecks and questioning whether any governor should be able to halt pay “for whatever good or bad reason.”
Lawmakers, who make a base annual salary of about $67,000 plus bonuses for serving in leadership posts, already have missed two monthly paychecks. Quinn also has said he’s not taking a salary.
Outgoing House Republican Leader Tom Cross said he’s heard from members who’ve said working without pay has been a hardship and there have been “healthy expenses” in his household with a daughter in college. But the Oswego lawmaker said legislators have to come up with a solution.
“Everybody likes to get paid,” Cross said. “I’m not going to complain or whine about it. We’ve got to get pensions done.”
Lawmakers failed to reach an agreement on how to deal with the pension problem during the legislative session that ended in May. They then voted to form a bipartisan committee to tackle the issue. That group has said it’s working toward a solution but has not yet issued a recommendation. Any proposal pitched by the 10-member committee would have to be approved by both chambers of the Legislature and Quinn.
Among the ideas being considered by the committee is cutting automatic cost-of-living increases for retirees and basing retirement benefits on the salary earned over a state worker’s career, rather than on the larger salary earned at the end of a career. Public employee unions have opposed that plan.
Illinois has the worst-funded public pension systems of any state in the nation, largely because for years legislators voted to not make their full annual contributions to the funds. That annual payment is now about $6 billion, which amounts to about one-fifth of the state’s general fund budget.
Associated Press writer Sophia Tareen contributed to this report.