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Cook County judge rules Illinois lawmakers cannot reject their own pay raises

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By Vincent Caruso, Illinois Policy Institute | Jul 11, 2019


State lawmakers were wrong to freeze their own pay between 2009 and 2016, said a Cook County judge who ruled in favor of two former state senators who want their back pay.

On July 2, Cook County Circuit Judge Franklin Valderrama ruled the Illinois Constitution prohibits changes to lawmaker compensation in the middle of a lawmaker’s term. The judge did not order the state to issue back paychecks, instead scheduling a hearing Aug. 7.

Former state Sen. Michael Noland, D-Elgin, sued the state comptroller shortly after he retired in 2017, seeking repayment for himself and all other members of the General Assembly who passed eight bills rejecting their annual cost-of-living raises. Noland, too, voted for at least one of the pay freezes in 2012.

“[T]he least we can do is cut our own pay again,” Noland said in a statement at the time. “I know most working families in Illinois are not seeing raises this year, so we shouldn’t either.”

Also suing is former state Sen. James Clayborne, D-Belleville, who retired in January after a 24-year career, serving the last 10 years as Senate majority leader. He joined Noland as a co-plaintiff in 2018.

He, too, voted for the 2012 pay freeze and said this at the time: “Rejecting this pay raise is the right thing to do at a time when so many people are struggling to make ends meet. As legislators, it’s wrong to ask our fellow Illinoisans to make responsible decisions if we are unwilling to do the same.”

After the $1,600 cost-of-living increase Gov. J.B. Pritzker approved in June, Illinois lawmakers are set to earn around $70,000 for a part-time job that requires about 70 days of legislative work in Springfield per year. This does not include $10,000 committee chairmanship stipends, per diems, mileage reimbursements and other perks, not to mention retired lawmakers’ pension costs.

In total, lawmaker compensation costs Illinois taxpayers more than $32 million a year.

State law grants state lawmakers automatic annual cost-of-living increases, but state lawmakers rejected those increases each year from 2009 to 2016, according to the Chicago Tribune. The section of the state constitution Valderrama referenced in his ruling says Illinois lawmakers “shall receive a salary and allowances as provided by law, but changes in the salary of a member shall not take effect during the term for which he has been elected.”

State lawmakers gave up pay raises as the state’s fiscal condition rapidly deteriorated, driven largely by pension debt. No state pension system is as poorly funded as lawmakers’ own system, the General Assembly Retirement System, or GARS. It contains less than 15 cents for every $1 owed in benefits, and costs taxpayers millions in annual bailouts.

Fifty-eight former state lawmakers enrolled in GARS collect yearly pension payouts over $100,000, with 44 having accumulated over $1 million in total pension benefits.

Noland’s and Clayborne’s current legal bid for back pay departs from their past rationale for voting to reject the 2012 pay raise. Illinois last year ranked 46th in the nation for jobs growth and had the highest overall tax burden in the nation, which means families across the state have faced financial obstacles as Noland and Clayborne have been petitioning the courts for more tax dollars.

Valderrama’s ruling came one day after Illinoisans saw the first of what will ultimately be 21 new tax and fee hikes to support Pritzker’s $45 billion capital plan and record $40 billion state budget. It means taxpayers’ wallets can be raided by current lawmakers, as well as by past lawmakers.

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