The state's Democratic dysfunction spilled into the courts Tuesday as Illinois' two top legislative leaders filed a lawsuit challenging Gov. Pat Quinn's decision to withhold lawmakers' paychecks until they send him a measure to overhaul the highly indebted government worker pension system.
House Speaker Michael Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton cast the issue as a Civics 101 lesson, arguing that denying pay undermines the separation of powers between the executive and legislative branches. The two Chicago Democrats want a Cook County judge to overturn Quinn's action and grant an injunction forcing Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka to issue paychecks — with interest if there's a delay. The first check lawmakers are scheduled to miss would be cut Thursday.
"If the governor's line-item veto is upheld, the independence of each member of the General Assembly is forever compromised. Any governor will hold a trump card over a co-equal branch of government, attempting to bend the members of the General Assembly to his or her will with the threat of eliminating their salaries, which for some legislators is their only source of income," the lawsuit states.
"In this particular instance, Governor Quinn has stated that his dispute with the General Assembly is over the lack of pension reform legislation. Next time it may be gun control, abortion rights or tax policy," the suit states.
Frustrated after nearly two years of unsuccessfully pushing for pension changes, Quinn used his veto powers this month to strip $13.8 million from the budget that was set aside for legislative salaries. He argues that lawmakers aren't doing their jobs when they fail to solve the retirement system problem, and therefore shouldn't be paid.
The governor stuck to that stance Tuesday, calling the suit "just plain wrong" and declaring that he is ready to "defend the interest of Illinois taxpayers in the courts."
"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 in a statement. "Legislators should not be rewarded for an endless cycle of promises, excuses, delay and inertia on the pension problem."
For Quinn, who's seeking re-election next year, there's little political downside. Even if he loses the lawsuit, he's positioned to burnish his image as the populist governor using every trick to beat the state's politicians into sending him legislation that will cut the $100 billion pension debt.
Zeroing out lawmakers' pay also is a sign that Quinn may have written off the General Assembly sending him a pension reform bill anytime soon. Inside the Capitol, the move amounts to war, and lawmakers consider it a cheap stunt.
Madigan and Cullerton can't agree on what form pension changes should take, but they shared a common goal in suing Quinn: affording their Democratic lawmakers a measure of political insulation. Voting to override Quinn's veto of their paychecks could have been used against them in next year's House and Senate races.
Republicans — out of power and looking for a political boost — are happy to cheer on Democrats as their public spats highlight the deadlock. Neither House Republican leader Tom Cross or Senate Republican leader Christine Radogno's names are on the suit.
Cross said he turned down Madigan when asked if his caucus wanted to join the lawsuit, saying it's an internal battle among Democrats and that it is distracting from the efforts of a special legislative committee appointed to broker a solution.
"We are looking at complete dysfunction," said Cross, of Oswego. "I'm going to stay focused on getting pension reforms done. I don't want to get into the middle of a civil war in the Democratic Party."
Quinn, whose salary is $177,412 a year, is voluntarily giving up his pay until the pension issue is resolved. Base pay for lawmakers is $67,836, though most earn thousands more through stipends for serving in party leadership or heading various legislative committees.
Some lawmakers are better equipped to deal with a lack of pay than others. Technically, serving as an Illinois legislator is a part-time vocation. The idea is to allow lawmakers to continue to hold other jobs to create a General Assembly composed of citizens who are still deeply connected to the communities they represent.
Indeed, many have other paying jobs, including some who draw income from the city. Those outside jobs can be quite lucrative, as in the case of Madigan, whose law firm has become a go-to in the field of commercial property tax appeals.
Other lawmakers contend they won't be able to pay their bills, arguing that serving as a legislator is a full-time job that demands more than showing up in Springfield for six months a year.
"I have a daughter, I'm not married, I don't have any other income," said Sen. Iris Martinez, D-Chicago. "It's not right for the governor to play around with people's livelihoods, especially those of us who are dedicated public servants. Who is going to pay my mortgage now?"
In a nod to the political pickle, Quinn's attorneys argue that the lawsuit is premature because lawmakers have not yet tried to exercise their right to override the governor's salary veto. Aides for the legislative leaders contend that an override would only legitimize Quinn's action as an appropriate use of his power, hence the need for the court to weigh in.
More than just a semantic argument over the separation of powers between the governor and the General Assembly, the lawsuit symbolizes a long-standing fight between the Democratic governor and the leaders of the Democrat-controlled legislature. Madigan and Cullerton repeatedly have shown little deference to the governor, often taking taxation, budget-making and other critical issues into their own hands with little involvement by Quinn.
The legal arguments on both sides revolve around sections of the state's 1970 constitution that include the governor's veto powers and the legislative branch, as well as two previous Illinois Supreme Court rulings dealing with state paychecks.
Under the constitution, the governor has the power to "reduce or veto any item of appropriations in a bill presented to him." At the same time, the constitution says a lawmaker "shall receive a salary and allowances as provided by law, but changes in the salary of a member shall not take effect during the term for which he has been elected."
Quinn has maintained that his legal authority to halt lawmakers' pay came, ironically, from a lawsuit he lost in 1985. The suit tried to challenge the system that once determined legislative compensation. Quinn contended that the state Supreme Court upheld the governor's "veto power" over "any" item of spending in that case.
In a legal analysis, the governor's lawyers also cite a 2004 state Supreme Court decision that overturned an effort by then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich to use his veto power to eliminate cost-of-living increases for judges. Lawyers for Quinn, who was Blagojevich's running mate, contended judicial salaries were protected from a governor's veto in a way that other state salaries were not.
The lawsuit filed Tuesday by Madigan and Cullerton argued that Quinn's pay veto unconstitutionally threatened the independence of the legislature from the governor. Lawyers for the two Democratic leaders argued that the state high court noted in its case on judicial salaries that "avoiding" concentrating governmental powers in one political body "was seen by the founding fathers as essential to freedom and liberty."
Beyond the legal rhetoric, Madigan and Cullerton allege that while Quinn vetoed out specific budget lines for the base salary of each lawmaker, he left intact in the budget bill the lump sum of $11.7 million for individual salaries. They also contend that while Quinn vetoed out individual budget lines for additional pay for party leaders and ranking committee members, he left untouched another line for the lump sum of $2.1 million in spending for those titles.
Because budget items that Quinn did not reduce or veto automatically become law, Madigan and Cullerton argue the $13.8 million in lump sums provide the spending authority for the court to order Republican Comptroller Topinka to issue legislative paychecks. Last week, Topinka said Attorney General Lisa Madigan's office advised her not to process lawmakers' pay.
Speaker Madigan and Cullerton asked Lisa Madigan for outside lawyers, but Quinn's office has yet to specify whether it wants the attorney general's office or outside counsel to defend against the suit, an attorney general's spokeswoman said. Attorney General Madigan could be put in the position of arguing against her father as he sues over his paycheck.
Members of the special legislative committee searching for a pension funding solution have said Quinn's decision to cut their pay will not affect the timeline under which they are operating. They argue that pension reform is a complex issue, and say they are in the process of running various scenarios past budget experts to determine what plan can bring about the most savings but also get enough votes to pass and withstand an inevitable court challenge.
To that end, public employee unions used Tuesday's lawsuit to bolster their argument against sweeping retirement changes, noting that the state's constitution doesn't just protect the pay of lawmakers but also the retirement benefits of employees who have loyally paid into the system even as politicians skipped payments.
"Lawmakers must not cherry-pick or apply a double standard in determining what parts of the constitution should be defended," the We Are One Illinois coalition said. "They shouldn't adhere to the constitution only when it's convenient."