State Government Illustration

State Government Illustration (Nancy Stone / Chicago Tribune)

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.


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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.