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Miller: Quinn loses fight over legislators’ pay but will press on

Updated: November 3, 2013 6:08AM



A bipartisan chorus seemed to rise as one last week to urge Gov. Pat Quinn not to appeal a ruling by a Cook County judge, who decided that Quinn had violated the Illinois Constitution when he vetoed lawmaker salaries in July.

Quinn said he vetoed the budget appropriation for legislators’ pay because he was tired of waiting for them to approve a pension reform plan.

Despite urgings by both Democrats and Republicans to drop the whole thing, Quinn forged ahead, issuing a defiant statement in which he vowed to pursue an appeal of Circuit Court Judge Neil Cohen’s decision, which ordered that lawmaker paychecks be processed “immediately.”

Cohen agreed with Quinn on one issue about the veto process but went on to declare that Quinn’s veto wasn’t valid from the moment it was issued. The judge did so by relying on the meaning of a single word, “changes.”

Quinn had argued that transcripts from the 1970 Illinois Constitutional Convention clearly showed that delegates only intended to stop legislators from increasing their salaries when they agreed on language that prevented “changes in the salary of a member” from taking effect during a term of office.

Cohen relied on two dictionary definitions to declare that the common meaning of “changes” included both increases and decreases. Therefore, Quinn’s veto violated the constitution by reducing legislators’ pay and was declared null and void.

It’s actually a well reasoned and informed decision, especially considering the fact that Cohen seemed more than a little out of his element during a previous hearing. He didn’t appear to understand the briefs that had been presented and appeared confused at times about the constitution and general procedure.

He even agreed to put off his decision by a week so House Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago) and Senate President John Cullerton (D-Chicago) could file another brief but then went ahead without them and gave them the decision they had sought.

OK, back to the appeal, which is no surprise, to say the least. Even setting aside the overwhelming popularity of the governor’s veto and Quinn’s natural stubbornness, there never should have been any doubt that Quinn would attempt to appeal this ruling.

Quinn has jealously guarded his powers and attempted, often while bungling, to expand them since assuming the governor’s office in 2009 after the impeachment of Rod Blagojevich. One of the ways he’s done this is by issuing presidential-like “signing statements.”

His latest, issued in July, promised that he would not allow a bill he had signed to undermine the state’s compliance with a class-action consent decree. Quinn is the first Illinois governor to use such statements, which normally are reserved for vetoes.

He also has meddled in the affairs of various boards and commissions, demanding resignations of the University of Illinois Board of Trustees after a political-influence scandal and recently calling for the ouster of the director of the state’s torture commission. He attempted to pack Southern Illinois University’s board this year to get his way at the university but was rebuked when the Senate unanimously rejected his appointees.

Quinn called for the “fumigation” of state government when he first was elevated to the office but has resisted several legislative efforts to get rid of Blagojevich holdovers, saying it was his job to fire them.

An appeal of Cohen’s decision would be right in line with Quinn’s history of protecting and expanding his powers. He clearly believes he had the right to veto the legislative salaries. This is more than just a political game to Quinn, even though the game most definitely is part of it.

He acts like such a goofball at times that it’s often difficult to take what he says and does at face value, but this obviously is very serious business to the governor. Make no mistake, Quinn wants the right to do this again. And he wants his successors to have this right to bring the General Assembly to heel.

Most people don’t know that Chicago mayors are, legally, quite weak in terms of their power. They compensate by building strong political organizations.

Illinois governors are constitutionally strong, so state legislative leaders have compensated for their comparative weakness by building huge political fiefdoms and devising innumerable rules to stymie the governor’s powers. Quinn appears to be trying to inject some balance into state government with this veto.

Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and CapitolFax.com.



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