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redeyechicago.com

Legislators will get paid, but they may pay a price

John Kass

September 29, 2013

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It's too early to say Pat Quinn will be re-elected as governor of Illinois, especially after a week in which he lost his big court fight with the legislature.

But consider this: While the governor was losing the legal battle, he was winning the political one.

Quinn's a Democrat. The General Assembly is controlled by Chicago Democrats. And for months, he's been making them look like idiots as they've demanded their paychecks even though they haven't dealt with the $100 billion state pension hole that is helping to ruin Illinois' economy.

The governor lost that gambit last week. First, Cook County Circuit Judge Neil Cohen ruled that Quinn's plan to deny the legislators their pay was unconstitutional. Then Cohen rejected Quinn's bid to stay the order, and so did the Illinois Appellate Court, controlled by Democrats.

If you're a legislator scoring at home, or if you're sitting in the outer office of state Senate President John Cullerton, D-DeLeo, waiting to go to lunch at Tavern on Rush, you probably think Quinn lost this one.

Judges understand politics too. How many judges has Pat Quinn made? None. How many judges have Boss Mike Madigan and Cullerton made in their Democratic judge factory? Answer: Do you really need an answer?

The legal argument against Quinn seems reasonable. The executive can't just deny legislators pay because he doesn't like what they're doing. The politicians and their media handmaidens have made that point.

But I wish Cohen had taken a different approach, telling the legislators that if they really wanted their paychecks they could override Quinn's veto. But that would've required them to declare themselves. The last thing politicians want to do before an election is cast a vote against the people.

I mean the people in the private sector, who've seen jobs and companies flying across the state line because Illinois is such a fiscal mess. They know their state is tanking. They know the legislature has refused to do much about state pensions, because the political class relies on the union bosses to help them get elected.

But taxpayers? If they don't do their jobs, they don't get paid.

For a brief second, I almost thought about trying out this theory, and leaving a blank hole on Page 2 of this newspaper on Sunday. But a strange thing happened: I realized that getting paid was the ideal thing. And you don't get paid if you don't work. Unless you're a legislator.

"The whole purpose of suspending the legislators' pay and not taking pay myself is to make sure that we focus attention of the legislature on the importance of pension reform," said the governor in an interview on my WLS-AM program last week.

"It's a $100 billion problem where taxpayers in Illinois are paying for this lack of action by the General Assembly. … I think we've succeeded for sure in getting the legislature to pay attention," Quinn said.

They're focused all right. Even his critics now say that Quinn scored major points with taxpayers.

"I agree we shouldn't be paid," state Rep. Jack Franks, D-Marengo, told me. "But what he did was very clumsy and it was unconstitutional. What happens when we get the next Blagojevich, and he says, 'Listen, until you give my idiot cousin the landfill he wants, I'm not going to pay you.'"

But Franks did acknowledge the obvious: The taxpayers become angry seeing the connected take care of themselves first.

"The public sector has become the new ruling class," he said. "We get the best paychecks, we get the best perks, and we have pensions that nobody else has."

That's where Quinn wins even though he lost. Quinn is a Democrat happily running as an outsider against the bosses of his own party. That's where he likes it. And those who underestimate him are making a mistake.

State Sen. Kwame Raoul, D-Chicago, is leading the legislative committee trying to come up with an answer to the pension hole. Raoul is a thoughtful, savvy man, and his is a difficult job.

"At times I feel like a field goal kicker ready to kick the field goal and the goal posts are moved 20 yards back," Raoul told me.

"As people checked in with their respective caucuses, they came back wanting to move the goal post some more. I think we're close. I think we're aiming for the veto session. I don't know how much longer this can go."

Still, last week's news cheered some Illinoisans. The Quad City Times reported that state Rep. Bill Mitchell, R-Forsyth, said he was having lunch with a friend when Cohen's ruling was issued:

"His first thought was, 'When do we get paid?'"

That was Mitchell's first thought? When does he get paid?

Nice.

I called Springfield to speak with Rep. Mitchell about his first thoughts of getting paid, but he wasn't available.

"His assistant is not in today," said a lady on the phone. "She's out. You try his district office?"

I called his district office. No answer. I left a message, then called again and again and again. Still nothing.

That's unfortunate, because Mitchell sounds like an honest man. He said what came to his mind. The first thing he thought about was his paycheck.

But what about us, the taxpayers? We need to get paid, too, don't we?

jskass@tribune.com

Twitter @John_Kass