Kadner: Always a reason to dock lawmakers’ pay
By Phil Kadner firstname.lastname@example.org July 26, 2013 6:48PM
Gov. Pat Quinn holds a budget bill that he used his line-item veto on to suspend Illinois lawmakers’ pay. | File photo
Updated: August 30, 2013 6:24AM
If you want a gun ban passed in Illinois, tell the governor to withhold the pay of state lawmakers.
You want more money for the schools. No more paychecks for legislators until they pony up.
Or, how about this, no more paydays for Illinois politicians until they eliminate the state income tax.
Gov. Pat Quinn has said state senators and representatives will not get paid until they pass pension reform.
That’s not just a threat.
The governor used his line-item veto power to kill a $13.8 million budget appropriation for legislative salaries.
On Thursday, lawmakers and the governor himself will not be paid.
It’s a political gimmick and likely a very popular one with the public.
With the state facing billions of dollars in debt and income taxes at an all-time high, Illinois residents don’t think very highly of the Illinois General Assembly.
Corruption, patronage and nepotism over decades have destroyed the body’s reputation.
And the pension crisis is real, although I’ve said in the past that solving that problem isn’t going to balance the state’s books.
But when an executive steps in and says he won’t pay elected officials until they do something he wants when he wants it done, well, that’s a dangerous precedent.
Imagine a U.S. president saying he will not pay congressmen until they vote for a law banning abortion.
That’s a pretty important issue. Its not about money, but lives.
I guess you could say the same thing for banning the sale of guns.
And the Tea Party people can tell you just how strongly they feel about cutting the national budget and rolling back the Affordable Care Act.
Politicians are always subject to the whims of public opinion.
That’s the way the democratic process is supposed to work.
The guy who sits at the very top (president, governor or mayor) has access to TV and radio stations and newspaper reporters and can issue statements on a daily basis that can generate thousands, even millions, of emails and letters to lawmakers.
But when the executives can’t get public opinion to move a legislative body, that’s also how the system is supposed to work.
I certainly can envision a day when a Republican governor, faced with a stubborn Democratic Legislature, would threaten to withhold paychecks.
According to Quinn and Illinois Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka, a Republican, the tactic is perfectly legal in this state.
The governor says the Illinois Constitution gives him the authority to veto appropriations.
And the lawmakers’ salaries are just another line item in the budget.
Technically speaking, the Legislature has the power to override the governor’s veto.
But it wouldn’t be a very popular thing to do.
Practically speaking, it’s a weapon that injures allies as well as enemies.
State Sen. Bill Cunningham (D-Chicago), for example, has voted for pension reform both in the Senate and previously as a member of the House.
He’s supported Quinn in the past. And, unlike many lawmakers, Cunningham has no other source of income.
There are other lawmakers in the same boat.
They’ve backed pension reform bills, but sometimes those bills passed out of one chamber of the General Assembly and not the other.
Sometimes, bills weren’t allowed onto the floor of the Senate or the House because the leaders of those bodies knew they would pass if the full body was able to vote.
So the bills were killed in committee.
What Quinn is really trying to do here is punish Illinois Senate President John Cullerton (D-Chicago) and Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago) because he believes they have been playing games with pension reform.
And he may be right.
But withholding the salaries of all the members of the Legislature punishes those who have been as enthusiastic about reform as the governor himself.
The argument can be made that this is a unique, dire situation.
That’s always the contention when some leader wants to do something that everyone knows in their gut is the wrong thing to do.
It’s all right for the government to spy on American citizens because we’re under terrorist threat. It’s a unique and dire situation.
And that’s exactly the time when ordinarily people need to stand up and say, “No. This is wrong.”
There is a separation between the branches of government (executive, legislative and judiciary) for a reason.
I understand that the people of this state would cheer if the governor, along with the legislators, were thrown off Navy Pier into Lake Michigan.
Defending the legislators of this state gives me no pleasure.
But a governor should not use his power of the purse to intimidate lawmakers to act as he wants them to act.
And if a governor can do this, what’s to stop one in the future from retaliating against judges, for failing to hand out stiffer sentences, or upholding the state Constitution?
The pension mess was built over decades.
It’s not easily solved. There are legal problems, constitutional issues and financial ramifications not only for the state, but to working people, if its not done right.
Quinn’s frustration as he watches billions of dollars drain out of state coffers is understandable.
I have often felt the same way watching thousands of public school children go through the system without getting an education.
My calls for reform went unheeded. Property taxes skyrocketed. And governors and legislators did nothing.
I thought their pay should have been docked. I guess Quinn didn’t think young people’s futures were nearly as important as pension reform.
That’s the problem with this sort of drastic action. Someone can always claim it is justified.
But it is dangerous and wrong.