SPRINGFIELD – Suddenly punished with the loss of their paychecks, lawmakers under pressure to solve Illinois’ pension crisis say their progress is tied less to their take-home pay than the slow process of calculating savings for the state’s coffers.
An impatient Gov. Pat Quinn suspended lawmakers’ salaries and stipends this week, hoping that getting them back will serve as a proverbial carrot to force lawmakers to act more quickly. But the 10-member committee hunting for a compromise includes a number of lawyers, a businessman and others with alternative sources of income who won’t feel an immediate financial pinch.
Many Illinois lawmakers consider themselves full-time legislators and rely on their yearly salary of more than $67,000, plus stipends for leadership or committee duties. But even those lawmakers insist that withholding their paychecks is not going to speed up their urgency in dealing with a tricky public policy question, even if it does hit them hard in the wallet and Quinn’s move has the support of many frustrated taxpayers.
“Right now the governor’s action is resonating with them,” State Rep. Mike Zalewski, a Riverside Democrat who is on the pension committee, said, referring to the public. “But I can tell you legislatively I don’t know that it will do any good.”
The National Conference of State Legislatures considers the Illinois General Assembly, which operates from January through May and calls special sessions as needed, a full-time legislative body. The base yearly salary for regular senators and representatives is $67,836, plus up to $20,000 in stipends for leadership or committee duties. Last year, they agreed to a furlough plan that cut pay by 4.7 percent.
The 10 members of the joint House and Senate conference committee on pensions are paid a range of salaries.
According to the state comptroller’s office, Sens. Matt Murphy and Bill Brady – both leaders in their Republican caucus – are paid a total of $88,545 respectively from the state before furloughs. Democratic State Sen. Kwame Raoul and Rep. Elaine Nekritz, leaders in their respective Democratic caucuses, each make $78,163. Only one member of the pension committee, Democratic state Sen. Daniel Biss of Evanston, receives the base salary without a stipend.
Raoul, Murphy and Zalewski are attorneys. Brady, of Bloomington, is a real estate developer and co-owner of a home-building company. The remainder of the committee members – Biss, Nekritz, State Sen. Linda Holmes, Republican Reps. Jil Tracy, Darlene Senger and Democratic Rep. Art Turner – all describe themselves as full-time lawmakers.
Zalewski’s wife, Carrie, has a spot on the state’s pollution control board that pays $117,000 annually, in addition to her husband’s check from the state.
Raoul, the committee’s chairman, said he wouldn’t be hurt by losing his paycheck, but that’s not the case for some legislators.
“I’ve got a [law] practice, I’m a partner at a firm away from the Legislature,” he said. “But we do have a citizen Legislature where it is expected people come from different professions. We have that sort of diversity where some have other jobs, some are independently wealthy, some are single parents. So [those] are people I feel for the most.”
State Sen. Toi Hutchinson, an Olympia Fields Democrat who is not on the committee, has been an outspoken critic of Quinn’s move. She describes herself as a working mother who has three young children to support, but that while she’ll feel the pinch of the pay cut, it won’t make her push her colleagues into coming to a quick solution.
“Will this hurt me personally, financially? Absolutely,” Hutchinson said. “But the worst thing that can happen is that legislators make a political decision instead of one that forwards the goals of good public policy.”
Quinn announced the salary suspension Wednesday, a day after the General Assembly missed at least the sixth deadline he set for them to come up with a compromise solution to the pension problem, which has plagued the state for years. The Democratic governor, who has made the pension problem his top priority and is up for re-election next year, said he had tried everything else to urge them along, without success.
Quinn said he also wouldn’t take a salary until the pension crisis is resolved. He earns $177,000 per year.
The governor insists he will withhold the salaries as long as it takes for a pension overhaul. The General Assembly would have to reconvene in Springfield and vote to override his decision to get them back in the meantime.
The committee has met three times since being formed after a special session failed to find an agreement between rival House and Senate proposals on how to close the $97 billion retirement funding shortfall. Committee members haven’t said when they will meet again, but they have requested a financial analysis for a plan backed by university administrators that they say could work as a framework for a state pensions overhaul.
Raoul said the committee could meet next week if the financial calculations come back in the coming days. In the meantime, he says, members are tasked with reaching out, one or two of a time, to union leaders and different stakeholders to get their input and reaction.
“I’ve said it’d be irresponsible to put a timetable on it,” he said. “Perhaps when we’ve tinkered with it, after getting the major numbers back, then it becomes easier to put a timetable on it.”
Brooke Anderson, the governor’s spokeswoman, would not say how long the governor plans to suspend salaries. Anderson noted that the process “should not take months.”