Why Illinois state lawmakers are still in line for an $1,800 pay raise

Why Illinois state lawmakers are still in line for an $1,800 pay raise

Illinois lawmakers are still likely to receive a $1,800 pay raise. But some have tried their best to make no waves by giving themselves cover from backlash.

“We don’t want nobody that nobody sent” is the most famous phrase on Chicago-style corruption.

But a lesser-known saying from the Daley machine explains the ongoing drama about whether state lawmakers just gave themselves an $1,800 pay raise in the middle of a pandemic.

“Don’t make no waves, don’t back no losers.”

Illinois lawmakers are still likely to receive a $1,800 pay raise. But some have tried their best to make no waves by giving themselves cover from backlash.

It didn’t work.

Average Illinoisans – 1.1 million of whom are jobless – were outraged to the point where Comptroller Susana Mendoza released a video this week assuring the public that lawmakers would be getting $0 in pay raises this year.

Kudos to Mendoza for standing up against political pay raises.

There’s just one problem: It’s not her choice to make. The state comptroller does not create a budget and decide who gets paid and who doesn’t, she simply pays the bills for the state. Members of the General Assembly and the governor are the ones who create a budget and make it law.

And by refusing to reform the law, Statehouse Democrats decided to make $1,800 political pay raises more likely than not.

Follow along closely to understand how.

At the tail end of his term, former Gov. Pat Quinn tried to withhold lawmaker paychecks to pressure them into passing pension reform. House Speaker Mike Madigan didn’t take kindly to a governor wielding this kind of power over his members. So, along with then-Senate President John Cullerton, he passed a new law defining lawmaker pay and pay raises as a “continuing appropriation.” A continuing appropriation is like a bill that automatically gets paid each month, with or without a budget.

That means it doesn’t matter whether the governor uses his veto power to zero out appropriations for lawmaker raises. And it doesn’t matter if lawmakers pass a budget appropriating $0 to raises.

The Illinois law says the money shall be paid even if “aggregate appropriations made available are insufficient to meet the levels required” and “for any reason.”

In order to stop the raises, lawmakers must pass a new law specifically prohibiting them. They could also pass a law removing automatic raises from the definition of compensation, which the Illinois Supreme Court has ruled.

From fiscal years 2014-2019, they did the former. Lawmakers included specific language in the budget to stop their own pay raises.

This year they didn’t.

Under the law, appropriating $0 and touting a handshake agreement with the comptroller’s office is not enough to stop lawmaker pay hikes. But that’s what lawmakers did.

Imagine if the General Assembly verbally agreed to stop paying retirees’ pension payments. Or if lawmakers decided to budget $0 to pay the electric bills for the Capitol complex.

“The [pay raises] are on autopilot,” wrote Rich Miller of the Springfield political blog Capitol Fax. “They have to vote themselves to stop it from happening.”

If Pritzker and state lawmakers fail to pass a law prohibiting lawmaker pay raises this year – and Mendoza doesn’t cut larger checks for lawmaker pay – they will expose Illinois taxpayers to expensive lawsuits from aggrieved politicians.

Who would be brazen enough to sue for political backpay during a pandemic?

Do not underestimate state lawmakers. Especially after they retire.

In 2016, a group of Democratic members of the House of Representatives successfully sued to get paid during the state’s budget impasse. More recently, two retired state lawmakers sued for backpay for every year the General Assembly voted to freeze their own pay. Some lawmakers are using that lawsuit – which is still ongoing – as a justification for why they didn’t pass a bill stopping their pay raises this year.

Again, make no waves.

This argument ignores the fact that there was legislation on the table to reform the system – ensuring Illinoisans were protected from political pay raises going forward.

“The General Assembly could have solved the recurring problem of legislative pay increases in this past session,” said State Sen. Craig Wilcox, R-McHenry.

“Unfortunately for Illinois taxpayers, my legislation never received a vote.”

Wilcox introduced a bill back in February to permanently end automatic pay raises for lawmakers. But Senate Bill 3607 died in the Senate Assignments Committee without a hearing.

If lawmakers were serious about stopping pay hikes, they would have passed a bill specifically stopping the raises, dared anyone to sue (and taken it all the way up to the Illinois Supreme Court if necessary), and passed a statute ending all automatic pay hikes for future General Assemblies.

Instead, Illinoisans got a half-hearted song and dance that could end with raises for politicians as their constituents can’t find jobs.

This entire drama is uncomfortable for rank-and-file Democrats in Springfield.

Some surely would not have voted to hike their pay this year after voting for a $1,600 pay hike last year, which Pritzker signed into law. They are the fifth-highest paid state lawmakers in the nation – and the highest paid among any “full-time lite” state lawmakers.

But a failure in leadership means they’re now forced to defend actions that will not stand up to scrutiny in court.

For the rest of Illinois, make no mistake:

State lawmakers did not protect you from political pay raises.

They just made it harder to follow the money.

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