Ward Room
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Opinion: Cancelling Legislators' Pay Is Unconstitutional

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    NEWSLETTERS

    Gov. Pat Quinn made his name with a grandstanding populist stunt against overpaid legislators.

    Back in 1980, the General Assembly voted itself a 40 percent raise. Quinn retaliated with the Cutback Amendment, which reduced the size of the House of Representatives from 177 to 118, by eliminating the “cumulative voting” system, under which every district sent a senator and three representatives to Springfield. Voters relished the chance to fire 59 politicians. Quinn’s amendment passed easily.

    It was a bad idea. Before the Cutback Amendment, most districts included members of both parties. The legislature was not as ideologically polarized, and the leaders didn’t have as much control over their caucuses. Michael Madigan was elected speaker of the new, smaller house, and has been accumulating power ever since.

    Now, Quinn is again trying to win over the public by attacking legislators’ salaries. The governor announced Wednesday he’s cancelling all legislative pay until the General Assembly enacts “comprehensive pension reform.”

    What constitutes comprehensive pension reform is presumably up to the governor’s discretion. From now, he’s the boss of Illinois, and he decides who gets paid, when, and how much.
    As the Illinois Observer points out, Quinn’s seizure of legislators’ salaries is unconstitutional because it gives him too much power over the General Assembly:
    A government affairs lawyer, who lobbies in Springfield, told The Illinois Observer, “Quinn likely overstepped his constitutional authority with this veto.”
    The attorney, who cited the 2003 case Jorgensen v. Blagojevich in which then Governor Rod Blagojevich vetoed pay raises for Illinois judges and the Illinois Supreme Court later ruled that the governor’s action was unconstitutional, pointed to a key passage of the opinion written by Justice Philip Rarick, warning against “coercive influence” of one branch of government against another.
    Here’s a key passage of Rarick’s opinion in the Blagojevich case:
    Avoiding the concentration of governmental powers in the same person or political body was seen by the founding fathers as essential to freedom and liberty. Preventing the excessive concentration of authority by one branch is why the system of mutual checks and balances by and among the three branches of government was incorporated into the structure of our government. 3 C. Antieau, Modern Constitutional Law 376-77 (2d ed. 1997). For checks and balances to work properly in protecting individual liberty, each of the three branches of government must be kept free from the control or coercive influence of the other branches. Insuring the independence of the respective branches of government is the real thrust of the separation of powers doctrine. People ex rel. Baricevic v. Wharton, 136 Ill. 2d 423, 432 (1990).
    Let’s hope Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka and Attorney General Lisa Madigan agree, and put the governor back in his place -- as an equal to the General Assembly, not its’ supervisor. If Quinn thinks the governor should determine legislators’ salaries, he needs to propose another constitutional amendment.