Illinois Senate President John Cullerton said Saturday he will not seek interest payments lawmakers are due for going without pay for two months last summer, a shift from earlier comments by a spokeswoman who had indicated the Democratic leader would work to get the few extra bucks.
“We have no intention of pursuing the interest on withheld salaries,” Cullerton said in a statement.
At issue is money lawmakers are owed after Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn withheld their paychecks during a stalemate over changes to the state's public employee pension system.
Cullerton and House Speaker Michael Madigan sued over Quinn's decision to block pay, arguing it violated the separation of powers between the legislative and executive branches.
Cook County Judge Neil Cohen eventually ruled the governor's move was unconstitutional and decided lawmakers should receive their back pay with interest. But Cohen left out one detail: exactly how much interest lawmakers should receive for their hardship.
As a result, Republican Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka simply didn't cut any interest checks. Last week, Cullerton spokeswoman Rikeesha Phelon indicated in an email that the North Side Democrat would try to work out a solution.
“The court has asked the comptroller's office to pay interest,” Phelon wrote. “Specific issues and amounts still need to be clarified and we look forward to engaging that office on this issue.”
On Saturday, after the Tribune’s story appeared in early Sunday editions, Phelon said that she spoke in error and Cullerton never planned to seek the payments.
The paycheck interest issue was politically tricky for legislative leaders and lawmakers. As a leader in a safe district, Cullerton was in a position to pursue the matter and provide cover for his rank-and-file members. He could have framed the issue as lawmakers being entitled to the interest because of Quinn's actions, which critics have characterized as political grandstanding rather than a real effort to help pass a pension overhaul. But while Cullerton would have served as the public face of the effort, all lawmakers faced blowback for going after additional tax dollars they otherwise wouldn't get.
“Obviously it would look petty and greedy in a way, even though by all rights they are entitled to this because the governor withheld money from them unfairly,” said Chris Mooney, director of the Institute of Government and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois.
By seeking the interest payments, lawmakers would have only add to the bill taxpayers are stuck with as a result of Quinn's failed attempt to withhold their salaries. The Tribune reported taxpayers are on the hook for at least $217,000 in legal fees related to the lawsuit, which could increase slightly as billing statements are finalized in the coming weeks.
Lawmakers receive a base salary of $67,836, but most earn thousands more in stipends by serving in Democratic or Republican leadership positions, or acting as chairman or vice chairman of legislative committees. The 177 legislators missed pay totaling $1,083,718 in August and another $1,088,290 in September.
If they sought just 1 percent interest each month — the monthly rate Illinois must pay vendors for falling 90 days behind on bills — taxpayers would be responsible for another $21,720. Divided evenly, that amounts to about $122 per lawmaker.
Some legislators argued the money isn't worth the hassle and would prefer to forget the kerfuffle altogether.
“To me it just feels like an issue that everybody has moved past, it's just not necessary to keep reliving that episode,” said Rep. Elaine Nekritz, a Democrat from Northbrook who served as a key pension negotiator in the House. Nekritz said she would reimburse the state for the interest cost if it showed up in her paycheck.
A spokesman for Madigan said he was “not aware of any discussions” about the possibility of seeking interest payments. Meanwhile, Quinn believes lawmakers should not accept the money, according to spokeswoman Brooke Anderson.
In July, Quinn vetoed $13.8 million set aside for legislative pay after lawmakers failed to send him a measure to overhaul the state's highly indebted public pension system during the spring session. The move was deemed unconstitutional in late September, but the governor appealed to the Illinois Supreme Court. He dropped that effort in December after lawmakers sent him sweeping and controversial changes to the employee retirement system.
Quinn refused to take a salary during the pension stalemate but collected nearly $74,000 in back pay shortly after signing the measure into law. His annual salary as governor is $177,412.
The legal battle has shifted from paychecks to defending the new pension law in court. Groups representing retired teachers and retired state employees have filed separate lawsuits claiming that the legislation is unconstitutional, and various union groups are expected to file additional challenges in the coming weeks.
Opponents argue that provisions of the law that cut cost-of-living adjustments and raise retirement ages violate a provision in the Illinois Constitution intended to protect retirement benefits from being reduced. The governor maintains the pension measure will be upheld.