SPRINGFIELD — Gov. Pat Quinn violated the Illinois Constitution when he blocked lawmaker paychecks in hopes of forcing the legislature to act on pension reform, a Cook County judge ruled Thursday.
Circuit Judge Neil Cohen’s decision, which was triggered by a lawsuit filed by the state’s legislative leaders, means the state’s 177 members of the House and Senate could start receiving paychecks in the coming days.
Although the governor said he intends to appeal the decision, state Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka said Thursday that she has already directed her employees to begin processing checks for August, September and October.
Lawmakers said the governor’s move not only was illegal, but it actually had the reverse effect of what he wanted it to do.
State Sen. Bill Brady, R-Bloomington, is a member of a special bipartisan committee tasked with forming a pension overhaul. He said Quinn’s maneuver actually slowed down the work of the panel.
“The governor’s ploy backfired. The ruling will remove a barrier that existed in the committee coming together with meaningful reforms,” said Brady, who also is running for governor.
In his ruling, Cohen said the constitution makes it clear that lawmakers’ pay can’t be changed while they are in the midst of their terms.
In a statement issued after the ruling was handed down, Quinn said he would seek a court decision that would prevent any paychecks from being issued until a higher court hears the case.
“Nobody in Springfield should get paid until the pension reform job gets done,” the Democrat from Chicago said.
House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, wouldn’t comment, pending a decision on Quinn’s appeal.
Senate President John Cullerton said the decision will allow the General Assembly to move forward.
“Now that the governor’s actions have been answered by a court, I trust that we can put aside all distractions and focus on the goal of pension reform,” the Chicago Democrat said. “Pension reform remains our top priority.”
Lawmakers said Quinn’s move was a stunt.
“I just think it was more of a political thing,” said state Sen. Gary Forby, D-Benton.
“I think Gov. Quinn is just so inept,” added state Rep. Bill Mitchell, R-Forsyth. “He’s bad for the state.”
State Rep. Mike Bost, R-Murphysboro, said the governor’s plan may have “worked in coffee shops, but not in the constitution.”
Mitchell said he was having lunch with a friend when news of the ruling came down. His first thought was, “When do we get paid?”
Lawmakers receive a base salary of about $67,000 but also receive stipends for chairing committees and serving in leadership roles.
Mitchell is a full-time lawmaker, meaning he had to dig into savings to make ends meet during the impasse.
“It was a bad three months,” he said.
Brady, who is a real estate developer, said Quinn’s move didn’t affect him.
“Fortunately, I’ve got other business interests that provide for my livelihood,” Brady said.
Forby also said he had other business interests that allowed him to stay afloat when he wasn’t receiving his state paycheck.
For now, however, he has no plans to celebrate.
“I’ll believe I got the money when I see it,” he said.