Gov. Pat Quinn’s plan to force legislators to come up with a solution to the state’s unfunded pension crisis was dealt a blow Thursday when a Cook County judge ruled that lawmakers should get their paychecks.
Judge Neil Cohen ruled that the state must pay lawmakers, with interest, for the paychecks they missed in August and September. Quinn had suspended lawmaker pay in an attempt to enforce or embarrass them into solving the unfunded pension crisis.
So, let’s assess for a minute. Quinn appears weaker than ever, despite pushing the popular idea of not paying legislators until they actually do their job. Legislators are going to get their money, plus interest. And in the meantime, nothing has been done to solve the state’s unfunded pension crisis.
Another week in the nation’s most dysfunctional state government.
Quinn is a loser in this silly battle, but the biggest losers are the taxpayers. The interest to be paid on lawmaker’s salaries isn’t a huge amount, but taxpayers are paying a lot for a government that is broke and won’t do anything to work its way out of the situation.
Quinn’s paycheck strategy was a huge gamble, and it has failed. It seemed unlikely from the beginning that the state constitution would allow the governor to simply not pay legislators because of a disagreement. If that were allowed, governors could simply bully their agenda through the legislative process by holding paychecks hostage. The argument presented in court was a more sophisticated discussion about the separation of powers between the legislative and the executive branch.
Of course, lawmakers could have solved the issue at any time by reconvening and overriding Quinn’s veto to the appropriation for lawmaker pay. But legislative leaders, House Speaker Michael Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton, decided to take the fight to court. The General Assembly did not fall for the ploy of having to vote for their own pay while ignoring the pension issue. Instead, the court threw Quinn’s idea out and ordered that the legislators get their money.
Quinn’s influence on the General Assembly will be further diminished, if that’s possible. Legislators will be reluctant to work with a governor who tried to paint them in a corner. People generally don’t like it when someone messes with their money.
Meanwhile, the pension issue continues to grow. Estimates are that the unfunded liability will soon reach nearly $120 billion. The special joint House-Senate conference committee that was supposed to come up with a compromise plan has floated a few trial balloons that don’t adequately address the issue and apparently little else.
Quinn took a political gamble. It seemed misguided at the time and appears even more so now. He will have to pay in political terms for this decision. But taxpayers will be the ones who pay out of their pocketbook for the lack of action on the state’s most pressing issue.