CHICAGO, July 10 (Reuters) - The fight over fixing Illinois’ big pension liability has come down to this: Unable to forge a plan to solve the state’s $100 billion pension underfunding, the governor instead is suspending legislators’ $68,000-a-year paychecks.
Governor Pat Quinn on Wednesday used his line-item veto to eliminate salaries for state lawmakers from the fiscal 2014 budget. If the salaries indeed are cut, the move saves the state $1.15 million a month.
Quinn said he is also suspending his own salary until a pension bill hits his desk.
In a state where political positions and personal feelings have rubbed raw after months of wrestling unsuccessfully with the pension problem, Quinn’s move invited an immediate, somewhat mystified response.
Senate President John Cullerton took Quinn to task, saying the work of a special legislative conference committee seeking a compromise solution on pensions should not be undermined or deterred by “political grandstanding.”
Illinois Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka said she requested a review by her legal staff of Quinn’s action to be completed by Aug. 1.
The office of Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, who is both the daughter of Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan and also considered a possible Democratic challenger for Quinn in the 2014 gubernatorial election, did not immediately have a response on the legality of the governor’s action.
Speaker Madigan responded to Quinn’s salary cut by taking credit for his chamber’s passage in May of a comprehensive pension fix that would make unilateral changes to pensions. The Madigan bill went down to an overwhelming defeat in the Senate.
“The governor’s decision follows my efforts and I understand his frustration. I am hopeful his strategy works,” Madigan said in a statement.
The state Senate did pass a pension fix supported by public labor unions, but Madigan never brought that proposal for a House vote and the spring legislative session ended on May 31.
Some lawmakers in the Democrat-controlled General Assembly have complained that Quinn has been ineffective in forging compromises on important matters such as pensions and the concealed carry of handguns. After playing no visible role in the pension debate during the legislative session, Quinn has scrambled in recent weeks to be seen as a leader in the effort.
Legislators left the capitol on Tuesday after overriding Quinn’s veto of concealed carry gun legislation. Even though the governor had set a Tuesday deadline to enact a comprehensive pension measure, they took no action on pension reform.
In the weeks since the spring legislative session ended, several Republicans and Democrats have announced plans to run against Quinn, who has said he plans to seek re-election.
One of the challengers, former Obama White House Chief of Staff William Daley, issued a statement criticizing Quinn’s move to cut lawmakers’ salaries. Quinn “is long on press conferences and short on results,” he said.
In announcing the salary veto, Quinn said lawmakers have pushed the state into a crisis by failing to resolve a nearly $100 billion unfunded public pension liability that has driven Illinois’ credit rating to the lowest level among U.S. states.
“They must have that alarm bell ringing in their ears,” Quinn told reporters. “The best way to do that is to hit them in the wallet.”
Illinois lawmakers are due to receive an annual salary of $67,836, plus $111 per day to cover expenses when the legislature is in session in 2013, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. The average compensation nationally for legislators whose jobs are considered close to full-time, as in Illinois, is $68,599.