Illinois Top Lawmakers Seek Paychecks Amid Pension Fight

Illinois’s top two lawmakers are asking a judge to invalidate Governor Pat Quinn’s decision to veto salaries for the state’s 177 legislators over their failure to resolve a $100 billion pension funding shortfall.

The governor struck more than $13 million in lawmaker pay and expenditures from an appropriations bill in July after Senate President John Cullerton and House Speaker Michael Madigan let their chambers go out of session for the third time in 11 months without resolving the shortfall, the worst among the 50 states.

Accusing Quinn of breaching the doctrine of separation of powers, the legislative leaders sued him and state Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka on July 30. State Court Judge Neil H. Cohen in Chicago today engaged the parties’ lawyers in two hours of debate.

“Is it your position the governor is limited in his ability to use the line-item veto?” he asked lawmakers’ lawyer Richard Prendergast.

A governor can exercise that power, “as long as it doesn’t create unconstitutional results,” the attorney said.

Cohen repeatedly questioned Prendergast, as he did Quinn attorney Steven F. Pflaum of Chicago-based Neal Gerber & Eisenberg LLP and the state’s chief deputy attorney general, Brent D. Stratton, who’s representing Baar Topinka.

Under Advisement

“I have not made up my mind on this,” Cohen said afterward, telling the lawyers he’d take the matter under advisement and rule by Sept. 26.

The governor, who entered the courtroom after Prendergast began his argument, left at the hearings’ end without taking questions from reporters.

Quinn, 64, was elevated from lieutenant governor in 2009 when his predecessor, Rod Blagojevich, was impeached. A Democrat, he is serving his first full term as governor of the fifth-most populous U.S. state after narrowly defeating Republican challenger Bill Brady in 2010 by fewer than 20,000 votes out of more than 3.7 million cast.

William M. Daley, former chief of staff to President Barack Obama, this week abandoned a planned Democratic Primary campaign against Quinn, leaving him unchallenged for re-nomination next year. State Attorney General Lisa Madigan in July said she would seek re-election to her present post.

Speaker Madigan, who is the attorney general’s father, and Cullerton are both Democrats. Baar Topinka, who opposed Blagojevich’s 2006 gubernatorial bid, is a Republican.

‘Constitutional Violation’

Cullerton and Madigan, each of whom represent Chicago-based districts, are seeking a court order either compelling the comptroller to disburse their pay under a separate section of the appropriations bill or to find Quinn’s veto unconstitutional.

“The purpose of this lawsuit is to protect the independence of the Legislature and preserve the separation of powers,” they said in a joint statement when the suit was filed. “It is our hope that the court will remedy this constitutional violation and that future governors will not feel empowered to use such coercive tactics.”

Quinn, in a July 30 statement, called the lawsuit “just plain wrong.”

“What he did was absolutely constitutional,” Pflaum argued today, telling Cohen the appropriations subject to the governor’s veto are not law. Quinn’s attorneys also argued the legal dispute isn’t ripe for judicial review because the legislators still have the right to attempt to override the line item veto.

‘Every Penny’

Prendergast dismissed that option, stating the legislators would then be forced to forfeit two months’ pay because the bill applies only prospectively, not retroactively.

Pflaum disagreed.

“They would get every penny that they haven’t been paid,” Quinn’s lawyer said.

Cohen also pressed Baar Topinka’s lawyer, Stratton, on why -- if the status of the legislation is unsettled -- she’s not paid the legislators.

“Is the answer because she just didn’t know what to do?” the judge asked.

“It was an unprecedented event,” Stratton replied.

The governor’s intent shouldn’t be disregarded, his attorneys said in a Sept. 13 court filing. “A line-item veto, after all, is part of a legislative process for which the fulfillment of legislative intent is the primary objective.”

‘Hypothetical Checks’

The Legislature maintains the power to render the suit moot with an override, his lawyers said in an earlier filing.

The lawmakers disputed Quinn’s assertion their case was merely hypothetical because the legislative process hasn’t run its course.

“This will come as a surprise to the legislators (and their families), who now have not been paid for two months,” Madigan and Cullerton said in a Sept. 6 filing. “Perhaps their banks can issue hypothetical credits to their accounts so that they can write hypothetical checks to pay their very real monthly bills.”

No matter how the judge rules, Quinn already has won, said Dick W. Simpson, a political science professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

“I think the fight with the Legislature has put pressure on them to act,” Simpson said in a phone interview, “and has redounded to the governor’s political benefit.”

The decision to dock lawmakers’ pay has proved popular with the public, Simpson said. He said that if a committee of Illinois legislators now crafting a compromise is successful, Quinn “can reasonably claim that it was his continual efforts with the Legislature that finally forced them to act.”

The case is Cullerton v. Quinn, 13-ch-17921, Cook County Circuit Court, Chancery Division (Chicago).

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