Change of Subject
July 14, 2013
Agreed, there was something deeply satisfying about Gov. Pat Quinn's announcement last week that he was suspending the pay of state lawmakers until they acted on pension reform.
"There is a principle as old as the Bible," said Quinn, who also voluntarily suspended his own pay. "You don't get your wages if the job isn't finished."
(It was a variation on Quinn's traditional exegesis, "Taxes should be based on the ability to pay, it's a principle as old as the Bible," and just as scripturally flimsy.)
For years — decades, even — the General Assembly has failed to assure the health of our pension systems, and the state's unfunded liability is growing by the day as dueling Democrats dither over competing reform proposals.
We're all frustrated. Quinn, who claims he was "put on Earth" to solve the pension mess, perhaps most of all.
But I see at least three problems with the idea of taking out that frustration by withholding legislative salaries until a pension bill is passed.
First, many of those rank-and-file lawmakers who may have to skip car payments, defer important purchases or take out loans are nearly as powerless as the rest of us to settle the differences between House Speaker Michael Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton and their competing plans. They may be minority Republicans, who barely have a voice in all of this, or simply back-benchers who are seldom consulted.
Second, it's probably unconstitutional. Article IV, Section 11 of the state constitution clearly states that "changes in the salary of a member shall not take effect during the term for which he has been elected."
Quinn's office argued that he's not changing the amounts on legislative paychecks, he's just holding them hostage. Legislators will get paid their full amount — they earn $67,836 a year — by and by.
Still this gambit raises a separation-of-powers issue. The executive branch doesn't — and shouldn't — have the right to yank the chain of the legislative branch in this manner any more than the legislative branch should have the right to zero-out the budget for the office of the governor in order to teach him (or someday her) a lesson.
Which brings us to the third and biggest problem: It sets a terrible precedent.
Individual members of the legislature may be reluctant to go to court to challenge Quinn or simply override his line-item veto for their salaries fearing they'll look greedy or insensitive. But if they collectively allow him to follow through on the threat, they will have abandoned any principled objection they might raise the next time Quinn or another governor pulls the same stunt.
What's to stop Quinn from threatening not to pay lawmakers until the House votes to approve same-sex marriage?
And if Quinn loses next year and his successor is one of those conservative Republicans who want to chip away at reproductive rights, what's to stop that governor from hanging onto the paychecks of senators and representatives until they OK mandatory transvaginal ultrasounds be performed on women seeking abortions?
A three-fifths supermajority override, yes. But on closely fought questions, a governor allowed to play censorious parent with the allowances of his "children" in the General Assembly would be a powerful lever, particularly if he or she arranged in advance for outside funders to provide loans to his supporters who were not getting paychecks.
I know, I know. But this is the pension crisis. It's really, really serious.
But when we calmly write the rules, we anticipate the urgencies and passions of crises.
The reason the authors of our state constitution inserted the clause about salaries is they knew that the temptation to reward and punish one another financially in the heat of legislative battle might otherwise be too strong for elected officials to resist.
Similarly, I might add, the reason they added Article XIII Section 5, the clause that says state pension benefits "shall not be diminished or impaired," is they knew that the temptation to solve inevitable budget crises by diminishing or impairing pension benefits might otherwise be too strong for elected officials to resist.
No matter why we were put on this Earth, principles, old and new, are to guide us in hard times not simply reassure us in easy times.
The 'great' Dick Mell
This item is sort of a summer rerun, but in case you missed it the first time, please enjoy this encore presentation of an astonishing quote about patronage jobs from retiring Ald. Dick Mell (33rd) that appeared in his interview with Tribune reporters published last weekend:
"The jobs that I really thought were great ones were the bridge tender jobs. At one time we had three people on every bridge. I put four kids through college as bridge tenders. I would get them on the second shift, from 3 to 11, where they could do their homework. Or 11 to 7, where they'd sleep, and they were getting electrician's pay, and it was great."
Great? How about nauseating? Shameful? Contemptible?
Taxpayers put sleeping friends of Dick Mell through college — at electrician's wages! — and he remembers it with pleasure and pride?
If, as everyone seems to expect, Mell's daughter, Democratic State Rep. Deb Mell of Chicago, is named his replacement, it would be nice to hear reassurances from her that, appearances notwithstanding, it's a new day in 33rd Ward, and that, at the very least, the pals to whom she gives do-nothing jobs will stay awake their entire shifts.
Moving the line on childhood
At one point during his closing argument at the George Zimmerman trial Thursday, prosecutor Bernie de la Rionda referred to "this man, Trayvon Martin," but then he quickly caught himself. "This teenager," he said.
Otherwise he was careful to emphasize Martin's youth in his speech to the jury, referring to him variously as a "young boy," and a "kid," just as his co-counsel John Guy called Martin a "child" no less than half a dozen times in his rebuttal argument Friday. In the battle over jury instructions, the state tried (and failed) to add a charge of child abuse against Zimmerman, given that Martin was a minor the night Zimmerman shot and killed him during an altercation in Sanford, Fla., in February, 2012.
The frequent invocations of Martin's youth and innocence were rich indeed coming from a Florida prosecutor. The state "is at the top of the national chart when it comes to the number of youth transferred to adult court each year," according to "From Time Out to Hard Time: Young Children in the Adult Criminal Justice System," a 2010 report by researchers at the University of Texas at Austin.
The report cited "children as young as 11 being tried as adults in Florida," and said that "the confluence of mandatory transfer laws and extremely harsh, mandatory adult sentences, even for pre-adolescent children, make Florida a prime focus for reform in this arena."
Indeed in 2011, Angela Corey, the special prosecutor in charge of the Zimmerman case, indicted a 12-year-old Jacksonville youth as an adult for the murder of his 2-year-old brother. Earlier this year, the defendant, now 14, pleaded guilty as an adult to lesser charges as part of a deal that will keep him locked up until he's 19.
Somehow, I doubt she would have referred to him as a young boy and a kid in that closing argument. Join the conversation at chicagotribune.com/zorn.
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