Quinn: No pay until pension mess is fixed

News-DemocratJuly 10, 2013 

Illinois legislators won't get their paychecks until they come up with a plan to address the state's pension crisis, Gov. Pat Quinn said Wednesday.

Quinn said lawmakers "need an alarm bell ringing in their ears" on the pension issue, and "the best way to do that is to hit them in their wallet."

In response:

* Political rivals quickly described the action as a stunt from an ineffective governor.

* The state comptroller said she'll seek a legal review because Quinn might not have the legal authority to block legislators' pay.

* One local legislator, tongue-in-cheek, said he'll share the bounty of his garden with fellow lawmakers while their pay is withheld.

Quinn, at a news conference in Chicago, said he was using his veto power on a budget bill that was awaiting his approval. The bill gives the state comptroller the authority to issue paychecks to state employees -- including legislators. Quinn vetoed out the pay for legislators.

Quinn, a Democrat, had been demanding that legislators submit to him by Tuesday a plan to reform the state's pension systems. Quinn had warned that there would be "consequences" if lawmakers didn't meet his deadline.

"In this budget, there should be no paychecks for legislators until they get the job done on pension reform," Quinn said. "Pension reform is the most critical job for all of us in public office. I cannot in good conscience approve legislation that provides paychecks to legislators who are not doing their job for the taxpayers."

Legislators left Springfield on Tuesday after voting to override Quinn's amendatory veto of a concealed-carry gun bill. They took no action on pensions, and some of them took the opportunity to publicly criticize the governor, saying he's done nothing to help solve the pension problem.

Quinn has set numerous deadlines for lawmakers to come up with a pension proposal.

"This is an emergency, the taxpayers of Illinois are waiting and there is no excuse for further legislative delay," Quinn said. "The taxpayers cannot afford an endless cycle of delays, excuses and more delays."

Quinn said he also was suspending his own pay until legislators send him a reform proposal.

Illinois has nearly $100 billion in unfunded pension liability, the nation's worst. Inaction on solving the problem has led to repeated credit rating downgrades.

Illinois legislators' base salary is just shy of $68,000. But they receive bonuses for serving as the heads of committees. The average pay, with bonuses, is about $77,000.

Many legislators have other occupations or business interests. But some have no other jobs and depend on their salaries.

One local lawmaker, Rep. Charlie Meier, an Okawville farmer, said he's jokingly told colleagues he'll help them with food.

"I told some of these state reps that Charlie Meier's garden is doing pretty good, and I'll keep them from starving this summer," Meier said.

Meier, a Republican, said he agrees with Quinn that something needs to be done on pensions.

"But I wish the governor would have been a leader back in January, February, March, April, May, June, but he waits until he's announced that he wants to run again for governor, and now he wants to be a leader," Meier said. "Where has he been?"

Early this year, Meier introduced a bill that would have stopped legislators' paychecks until the state got caught up on its overdue bills. The bill went nowhere.

"I was ready for it then, and I'm ready for it now," Meier said.

Former White House chief of staff Bill Daley, who plans to challenge Quinn in the Democratic primary for governor, said during a visit Wednesday to the News-Democrat that Quinn hasn't shown enough leadership in resolving the problem.

"It is obvious to everyone by now that this governor is long on press conferences and short on results," Daley said. "This media sideshow doesn't get things done, in fact it stands in the way."

Quinn faces re-election next year. Illinois political expert Kent Redfield, in a recent interview, said Quinn has been painting legislators as the villains, and himself as the hero.

Daley said a previous governor used the same tactic.

"Rod Blagojevich used to do this," Daley said.

Republican gubernatorial hopeful Bruce Rauner called the move a stunt.

"The pension crisis won't be solved by political stunts, it will be solved by bold leadership that's willing to take on the powerful interests in Springfield. We won't get that from the crowd in charge there now," Rauner said. "If you want to enact real pension reform, you need to focus on the folks with the real power -- the government union bosses -- but the career politicians are all afraid of them."

Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka said she appreciates the governor's focus on pensions, but "real questions have been raised about the legality of his action." She said the state Constitution says changes in legislators' salaries "shall not take effect during the term for which he has been elected."

Topinka said she's requested a legal review to be completed before lawmakers' next paychecks are issued on Aug. 1.

House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, said Wednesday he's "hopeful" that Quinn's strategy on the pension issue works.

Madigan said he warned his House Democrats during the spring session that "doing nothing or passing only a half-measure" was not an answer. He and Senate President John Cullerton passed separate pension plans out of their chambers which didn't get approval from the opposite house.

Sen. Kyle McCarter, R-Lebanon, said he shares Quinn's frustration.

"I've introduced several proposals, which have languished because of a very politically-controlled legislative process, but I don't see how this stunt is going to contribute to an environment of cooperation and compromise," McCarter said. "He obviously did not read the book, 'How to Win Friends and Influence People.'"

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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