Illinois House bill would let state lawmakers ‘opt out’ of receiving annual raises

Illinois House bill would let state lawmakers ‘opt out’ of receiving annual raises

A proposal in the Illinois House would allow lawmakers to forgo their annual cost-of-living increase in base salary. The move comes after former lawmakers sued for back pay.

Weeks after a Cook County judge ruled it unconstitutional for the Illinois General Assembly to reject its own pay raises, a bill filed in the Illinois House of Representatives seeks to let state lawmakers do just that.

State Rep. Maurice A. West II, D-Rockford, filed House Bill 3855 on July 19. The bill would allow lawmakers to forgo annual cost-of-living increases granted to the General Assembly under state law.

The money lawmakers would give up would instead go to the state’s severely underwater pension system. The state pension systems were projected to end fiscal year 2019 with deficits of $136.8 billion.

Lawmakers could opt out of their cost-of-living increase at any point during the fiscal year under HB 3855. Upon opting out, the bill would require lawmakers to repay each cost-of-living increase earned up to that point, with the state depositing those funds into the pension systems.

Until this year, the Illinois General Assembly had voted each year since 2009 to “freeze” its annual cost-of-living increase. And pending the outcome of a lawsuit brought by two former lawmakers, all those nixed pay raises could still reach lawmakers’ pockets.

On July 2, Cook County Circuit Judge Franklin Valderrama ruled the Illinois Constitution prohibits changes to lawmaker compensation in the middle of a lawmaker’s term. The judge has not yet ordered the state to issue back paychecks, but has scheduled another hearing for Aug. 7.

Former state Sen. Michael Noland, D-Elgin, sued the state comptroller shortly after he retired in 2017, seeking repayment for himself and all other members of the General Assembly who passed eight bills rejecting their annual cost-of-living raises. Noland himself voted for at least one of those bills in 2012.

Noland’s co-plaintiff, former state Sen. James Clayborne, D-Belleville, joined the case in 2018. He, too, voted for the 2012 pay freeze and said he was rejecting it in solidarity with taxpayers. The judge recently removed Clayborne from the lawsuit because Clayborne decided not to seek reelection, although he still stands to receive the same back pay as his peers at the judge’s direction.

If passed, West’s bill would protect taxpayers from the kind of duplicity shown by former lawmakers Noland and Clayborne, who advocated on behalf of taxpayers when it was politically advantageous only to demand more of them later.

Lawmakers receive pensions from the General Assembly Retirement System, or GARS, which costs taxpayers millions in annual payments. It contains about 15 cents for every dollar needed to pay future benefits, and is the worst-funded of the five state pension systems. West’s bill would be a small but welcome step toward reducing the GARS deficit.

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