Dillon: Will Lawmakers Have the Nerve to Cash Back Pay?

Every year from 2009 to 2016, lawmakers made a big bipartisan show of voting to freeze their salaries. Now some of them want to claw back those raises, for themselves and all lawmakers who gave them up.

Illinois State Capitol dome in Springfield. (benkrut/iStock)

BGA Policy Director Marie Dillon regularly writes opinion articles for the State Journal-Register.

What did the framers of the Illinois Constitution mean when they declared that the salaries of state lawmakers could not be changed in the middle of a term? Attorneys spent many billable hours arguing about that recently, and a Cook County judge took 18 pages to explain how he’d ruled, but to taxpayers it’s utterly beside the point.

There is zero question about what lawmakers meant when they voted — eight times — to forgo annual cost-of-living raises provided under state law.

A state that can’t pay its health care providers, fix its roads or fund its schools can’t afford automatic pay increases for the inept stewards of its tax dollars. So every year from 2009 to 2016, lawmakers made a big bipartisan show of voting to freeze their salaries.

Former Sen. Michael Noland, D-Elgin, was one of them. So was former Sen. James Clayborne, D-Belleville. Now they’re plaintiffs in a lawsuit that says the votes they cast were unconstitutional.

They want to claw back those raises, for themselves and all lawmakers who gave them up. They also want to be paid for furlough days they agreed to take from 2009 to 2013.

State Comptroller Susana Mendoza, the defendant in the suit, says that would all add up to more than $10 million.

The constitution says lawmakers “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.”

Mendoza’s attorneys argued for a common sense interpretation: The authors of the constitution were not fretting about the possibility that lawmakers would vote to reduce their salaries, if in fact that’s what a pay freeze is. They just wanted to prevent lawmakers from helping themselves to raises after an election.

But Cook County Circuit Court Judge Franklin Valderrama agreed with the literal reading argued by the plaintiffs: Change means change, up or down. He didn’t tell Mendoza to write the checks, at least not yet. The next court date is Aug. 7.

“Just as Illinois courts held that the Illinois Constitution prohibits using the salaries of judges and legislators as a political football by the governor and comptroller to advance a political agenda, members of the General Assembly cannot cut their own salaries to curry favor with voters,” Noland and Clayborne wrote in a candid self-own.

It’s true that a judge sided with lawmakers in 2013, when then-Gov. Pat Quinn used his line-item veto to delete their salaries from the state budget because they hadn’t enacted pension reforms. A different judge said Comptroller Leslie Munger, Mendoza’s predecessor, couldn’t withhold lawmaker paychecks during the legislature’s standoff with Gov. Bruce Rauner. Still another judge ruled that Gov. Rod Blagojevich and the General Assembly could not take away cost-of-living raises for state judges in 2003 and 2004.

But it’s one thing for a governor to zero out lawmakers’ salaries, and another for lawmakers themselves to decline an undeserved pay raise, then sue to recover that money on grounds that their own votes were unconstitutional.

Automatic raises for legislators have no business in state law anyway. Going forward, the transparent and responsible approach would be for lawmakers to remove the COLAs and vote to raise their salaries whenever they can make a case publicly that their performance warrants it.

Lawmakers’ base pay — stuck at $67,836 since 2008 — went up $1,600 on July 1 under the new state budget. It was an accident (wink wink). The House left out the agreed-upon language that would have eliminated the COLA, the Senate feigned surprise, Republicans feigned outrage, and Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed the bill. Taxpayers shrugged. It’s hard to begrudge anyone a raise after all those years without one.

It will be a different story if all those salary freezes are voided and Mendoza has to start writing checks for back pay. How many lawmakers will have the nerve to cash them?