Senate rejects legislative raise

By Mark Fitton
Illinois News Network

SPRINGFIELD — The state Senate on Wednesday easily passed a measure to halt a 2 percent cost-of-living increase for lawmakers and other top state officials.

The Senate passed House Bill 576 by a vote of 49-to-2 with eight members not voting.

The bill now moves on to Gov. Bruce Rauner, who has previously said he supports it.

The measure also freezes per diem payments and mileage rates at their current levels, $111 and 39 cents per mile, respectively.

There were no questions or debate on the bill in the Senate after its introduction by Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago. It was sponsored in the House by Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago.

Cullerton and other members of the General Assembly had previously questioned the measure’s constitutionality, with Cullerton going so far as describing it as “blatantly unconstitutional” in an interview with the Chicago Sun-Times editorial board.

Cullerton appeared to address that issue in his remarks on the Senate floor Wednesday, noting that the effective date of the bill makes clear the intent is to apply the pay and expense-allowance freezes to all of fiscal year 2016, which began July 1.

“So if anyone has received a COLA for the first pay period, you would owe that money back to the state,” he told senators.

“We’re going to ask the comptroller, for those of us who get automatic deposits, if she could make that change for us in the next pay period,” Cullerton said.

The measure raised questions of constitutionality because legislators have already earned a month’s pay with the COLA included.

That’s notable because a portion of the 1970 Illinois Constitution dealing with the General Assembly reads: “A member 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.”

The clause is intended to keep a sitting Legislature from tinkering with its own pay.

Cullerton also has noted court rulings that invoked the clause at times when the legislative, executive and judicial have been tempted to fiddle with each other’s pay.

Because the vote to halt the COLA came so late, Comptroller Leslie Munger’s office said it had to process the July payroll with the COLA included.

Although they ended up voting for the measure, House Republicans criticized Democrats for waiting so long to bring the matter for a vote and complained that GOP bills to the same end had been bottled up in committee for months.

Also, until the House passed the bill, the Republican governor had made the raise an attack point against legislative Democrats, with whom he is locked in battle on several fronts, including the state budget.

Illinois legislators make about $67,800, the best legislative pay in the Midwest and fifth-highest in the country. The bill would have added about $1,350 annually. Savings for the COLA freeze are projected at roughly $239,000, and holding the line on allowances might save another $250,000.

Voting against the freeze Wednesday were Sens. Emil Jones III, D-Chicago, and Kimberly Lightford, D-Maywood.

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