By Benjamin Yount | Illinois watchdog
SPRINGFIELD — It may be politically popular for Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn to cancel paychecks for state lawmakers in their ongoing dispute over how to fix Illinois’ worst in the nation pension systems.
But legislative leaders say it’s the worst abuse of of power by a governor they have ever seen.
Illinois’ top Democratic legislators, House Speaker Mike Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton, both from Chicago, on Tuesday filed a lawsuit against Gov. Pat Quinn challenging his authority to line-item veto legislative salaries.
“This action was purely political and an unconstitutional attempt to coerce the legislature to comply with his demands,” the legislative leaders wrote in a letter accompanying their lawsuit. “This matter is of fundamental constitutional importance, as Governor Quinn’s action threatens the independence of each branch of government.”
Quinn earlier this month canceled the $67,836 base pay for Illinois’ 177 legislators, and said lawmakers should not be paid until they “do their jobs.”
On Tuesday, the Illinois governor again scolded the Legislature.
“Instead of focusing on resolving the state’s pension crisis — which is costing taxpayers millions of dollars a day — legislators have chosen to focus on their own paychecks,” Quinn said in a statement.
But the focus of the lawsuit is not paycheck or pensions, but the separation of powers.
“If unchecked, any governor could attempt to employ the same tactic to threaten the legislature, the judiciary, or another constitutional officer to accomplish his or her own personal agenda,” the Democratic leaders said in their letter. “In this case, the Governor is seeking changes to the pension system, but next time it could be tax policy, gun control, or education reform. The possibilities are endless.”
University of Illinois at Springfield political science professor Kent Redfield said the separation of power argument goes back to the basic tenets of the American political system.
“In the American system, the ultimate power actually rests with the Legislature rather than the governor,” Redfield said. “But, again, the Legislature cannot act in ways that violate the basic power of the judiciary or the (executive), and neither can the governor.”
Illinois lawmakers are supposed to be paid on Thursday, but Illinois’ comptroller said last week she could not spend money that has been cut from the budget.
Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka did say she wanted to hear from a court.
Redfield said lawmakers may win their case and get paid, just not right away.
“You have a constitutional right to the salary you ran on,” Redfield said referring to the Illinois Constitution’s provision that legislative salaries cannot be reduced. “But you do not have a constitutional right to be paid once a month.”
The paycheck lawsuit will be heard in Chicago, but it is not clear when a judge might rule.
Contact Benjamin Yount at [email protected] and find him on Twitter @BenYount