Updated 07/10/13 – 2:32 p.m.
CHICAGO (CBS) — Seeking to pressure lawmakers into acting on comprehensive pension reform, Gov. Pat Quinn used his budgetary veto powers on Wednesday to suspend legislative salaries until they come up with a plan.
“This is an emergency. This is a crisis. This requires full attention of those who are elected to the General Assembly; who take an oath of office to do the right thing for the public,” Quinn said at a Thompson Center news conference, a day after a legislative committee missed the deadline he gave them to send him a plan to address the state’s $100 billion pension deficit. “For too long, we’ve had legislative inertia, delay, and excuses on this paramount issue to the people of Illinois.”
Quinn had been holding off on signing a key piece of the state budget, which allows the state comptroller to issue paychecks to state employees. He said he was issuing a line-item veto to suspend legislative pensions and stipends until the legislature agrees on pension reform.
“We want to have an alarm bell for our legislators to understand that this is an emergency that demands their undivided attention. They cannot take time away and ignore this issue. They must have that alarm bell ringing in their ears, and the best way to do that is to hit them in the wallet,” Quinn said.
Lawmakers receive a salary of $67,836 a year, and can earn pay boosts through leadership positions and committee posts, and also receive per diem payments for daily expenses in Springfield when they are in session. They are paid once a month, and their next paychecks are due at the end of the month.
Many lawmakers have full-time jobs outside of their work on the Legislature.
The governor said he would not take a salary either, until lawmakers come up with a pension reform plan. The governor’s salary is $177,412.
“The legislature has had many opportunities in these two years to act. They have failed repeatedly to act and put a bill on my desk for comprehensive public pension reform,” he said. “I think it’s important for the people of Illinois to know the legislators should not get paid until they enact comprehensive public pension reform.”
Senate President John Cullerton (D-Chicago) slammed the governor for moving to halt lawmakers’ pay, calling the maneuver “political grandstanding.”
“Lawmakers have worked hard this session. That work included passing a balanced budget, paying off hundreds of millions of dollars in old bills, cutting their own pay and numerous, serious bipartisan efforts to enact comprehensive pension reform,” he said in a written statement. “The governor’s actions today are as unproductive as yesterday’s arbitrary deadline. Responsible leaders know that unworkable demands will only delay progress.”
State Rep. Lou Lang, who is an assistant majority leader for the House Democrats, but not on the conference committee, also criticized the governor for not doing enough himself to get a pension deal done.
“If the governor spent as much time before the pension conference committee as does before press conferences, the problem would be solved,” Lang said.
Major ratings agencies have repeatedly downgraded the state’s credit rating, because of inaction on the ballooning pension deficit, to the point Illinois’ credit rating is the worst in the nation.
“Up until now, the only ones who have had to pay when pension reform was not put on my desk by the General Assembly have been the taxpayers of Illinois,” Quinn said.
Because of the credit downgrades, Illinois must pay more to borrow money for construction projects and other expenses.
After the state sold $1.3 billion in public works construction bonds last month, the governor’ office said the state would have to pay $130 million more in interest over the 25-year life of the bonds, because of the latest credit rating downgrades.
A 10-member bipartisan legislative reported minor progress after it met to continue pension reform negotiations on Tuesday, and blasted the governor for setting what they called an “artificial” deadline to reach a deal.
Quinn has said the state’s pension debt continues to grow by $5 million a day every day lawmakers fail to act on pension reform.
“Every day that the pension liability grows, taxpayers pay more,” he said.
State Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka’s office said she would seek a legal review of Quinn’s line-item veto.
“While I understand and appreciate the Governor’s focus on pension reform, real questions have been raised about the legality of his action. Specifically, Section 11 of our State Constitution states that ‘changes in the salary of a member shall not take effect during the term for which he has been elected.’ Therefore, I have requested a legal review which should be completed before lawmakers are scheduled to receive their next paychecks on August 1, 2013,” she said in a written statement.