The past year has been a rough one for many Illinoisans.
During the recent budget impasse, residents were inundated with stories of anguish throughout the state. And while a stopgap budget has answered some cries for help, the Land of Lincoln remains mired in sluggish growth, high taxes and low expectations.
But a select few Illinoisans have shielded themselves from the pain they’ve inflicted upon others: state politicians.
Despite failing to pass a balanced budget or any significant economic reforms for more than a year, state lawmakers the week of July 4 received paychecks and per diem money. This was the first check lawmakers had seen since Comptroller Leslie Munger temporarily threw lawmaker salaries into the state’s $8 billion pile of unpaid bills three months ago.
State Sen. Kimberly Lightford, D-Westchester, must have breathed a sigh of relief.
On June 30, Lightford took to the floor of the Illinois Senate to complain that the state wasn’t taking sufficient care of lawmakers such as herself.
“I’m hoping the comptroller will decide and recognize that we’re not vendors, that we’re actually employees of this body and deserve to be paid,” she said.
More than 1 million people have viewed the footage of Lightford’s tone-deaf defense of a privileged political class on Facebook. The video’s popularity speaks to Illinoisans’ sense of fairness. After the mess they’ve made, Illinois politicians are lucky to receive a paycheck at all, much less cut in line.
Illinois lawmakers earn base salaries of nearly $68,000 for what is essentially part-time work. Lightford took home more than $88,000 in 2015. She also received health care benefits worth more than $9,500, and racked up $16,000 more in taxpayer-funded pension benefits for when she retires.
In the wake of Lightford’s gaffe, the question remains: Why were lawmakers getting paid without passing a budget?
Ask House Speaker Mike Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton.
In 2014, Madigan and Cullerton rammed a bill through the General Assembly ensuring lawmakers would get paid with or without a budget. They did this by exempting lawmaker salaries, operating expenses and pay increases from the annual appropriations process. In other words, these payments became “continuing appropriations.” The bill did three things.
First, it meant that those items must be specifically prohibited to stop the money from flowing to politicians. Second, those items would not be affected by the lack of a state budget. And third, year-to-year cuts to lawmaker salaries and operating expenses would be prohibited.
Then-Gov. Pat Quinn signed off.
No other office or agency of Illinois state government has these sorts of privileges. Continuing appropriations are typically reserved for things such as pension payments, debt payments and interest payments.
Not payments to politicians.
Madigan and Cullerton’s power play serves as an important case study in political priorities. Why didn’t they extend these privileges to the groups crying out for help during the budget impasse?
Simple: State politicians knew their own bottom lines could soon be on the chopping block. So they took them off the bargaining table. If only other groups, including taxpayers, had been so lucky.
But Illinoisans aren’t just being forced to pay politicians’ salaries. They’re also bailing out political pensions. In 2017, taxpayers will contribute the equivalent of nearly $123,000 per lawmaker in pension costs alone.
The average career lawmaker’s pension totals nearly $96,000 a year, and state lawmakers can retire and start drawing pension benefits from the General Assembly Retirement System, or GARS, after as few as eight years in office.
Those who have taken full advantage of Illinois’ lack of term limits will collect 85 percent of their final salary after 20 years of service. Lawmakers elected after 2011 max out at 60 percent.
As has been the case in many matters of state governance, Illinois lawmakers have proven inept at managing their own retirements. GARS has a mere 16 cents for every dollar needed to pay out future benefits, and taxpayers are bailing it out by contributing 17 times more money than lawmakers do toward GARS.
It’s not exactly a shared sacrifice.
If state lawmakers are serious about taking action to alleviate the pain facing Illinoisans, they should start by looking in the mirror.
Members of the Illinois General Assembly should end pensions for politicians once and for all. And a pay cut would send an equally powerful message. Their job performance demands as much.
Austin Berg is a writer for the Illinois Policy Institute. He wrote this column for the Illinois News Network, a project of the Institute. Austin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.