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Judge could restore lawmakers' pay

Published: Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2013 5:30 a.m. CST

State lawmakers who have gone without paychecks for the last two months may get some help from a judge this week.

Cook County Circuit Judge Neil Cohen heard oral arguments Sept. 18 on a lawsuit filed by state legislators challenging Gov. Pat Quinn’s decision to halt their pay until they agree on how to deal with Illinois’ nearly $100 billion public pension problem.

The suit was filed by House Speaker Michael Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton after Quinn, their fellow Chicago Democrat, used his line-item veto in July to cut appropriations for legislators’ salaries from the state budget.

Attorneys for Madigan and Cullerton also are asking the judge to order State Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka to issue the paychecks. Topinka, who controls the state’s checkbook, is named along with Quinn as a co-defendant in the lawsuit.

Attorney Richard Prendegast, representing the plaintiffs, argued Sept. 18 that Quinn’s line-item veto of lawmakers’ salaries was “an unprecedented attempt” to achieve his goals through coercion. Prendegast also argued that the governor’s actions were unconstitutional and a violation of the separation of powers between the executive and legislative branches.

Quinn attended a portion of oral arguments Sept. 18 but let his lawyers do the talking for him. His attorney, Steven Pflaum, contended the governor has the authority to veto the legislators’ salaries. Pflaum also argued the lawmakers’ lawsuit is premature, because all the legislators need to do to start getting their paychecks again is to return to Springfield and vote to override the veto.

The judge may have given a clue about his eventual ruling when he questioned the attorneys for Quinn and Topinka. Cohen asked why the comptroller didn’t ask the courts for guidance before she stopped issuing the lawmakers’ paychecks, and the judge also raised the question of whether any governor should be able to halt legislators’ salaries “for whatever good or bad reason.”

However, Cohen told attorneys for both sides that he hasn’t made up his mind. He said he will issue his decision by Thursday of this week.

Lawmakers, who make a base annual salary of about $67,000 plus bonuses for serving in leadership posts, already have missed two monthly paychecks. Quinn also has said he is not taking a salary.

While many readers may applaud that lawmakers and the governor have not been paid for two months, taking the matter to the courts will wind up costing the taxpayers money. Whatever one thinks about Quinn’s methods, we would prefer that this dispute be resolved by the General Assembly reaching an agreement on how to deal with the pension problem.

If lawmakers can do that, even the governor will agree they have earned their pay.

The (Alton) Telegraph

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