Report delves into real cost of Illinois legislators
By Michael Wright
Illinois News Network
Illinois lawmakers are making full-time money for part-time work, according to a report from the Illinois Policy Institute.
Lawmakers are compensated on average more than $100,000 every year, after benefits and taxpayer contributions to lawmakers’ flailing pension fund are factored in.
The report comes at a time when Illinois faces budget crises. Lawmakers failed to pass a budget for the 2016 fiscal year and could barely manage a six-month stopgap measure for 2017. The state faces a backlog of $7.8 billion in unpaid bills.
“What are they costing taxpayers, and what kind of job are they doing?” asked Ted Dabrowski, vice president of policy for the Institute, one of the authors of the report. “Why aren’t they reducing their own pay and benefits?”
Lawmakers earn a base salary of $68,000 a year, the fifth-highest in the country, and more than double what their counterparts in neighboring Iowa and Indiana earn. On top of that, party leaders make an additional $27,000, assistant leaders get as much as $20,000 annually, while committee chairs pull in an additional $10,000. They also receive mileage allowances and $111 per diem payments while in session.
Many Illinois legislators work full-time jobs when not in session, the report states.
In Rockford’s delegation, Democratic state Rep. Litesa Wallace received total compensation worth $95,964, and Republican state Rep. John Cabello received $96,184, including a $10,326 stipend for serving as a minority party spokesman. Republican state Rep. Joe Sosnowski received total compensation worth $111,273, with a $10,326 stipend as a minority party spokesperson. Democratic state Sen. Steve Stadelman received total compensation worth $97,616 with no stipend. Republican state Sen. Dave Syverson received total compensation worth $120,813 with a $20,649 stipend as the Senate’s assistant minority leader. Republican state Sen. Tim Bivins received total compensation worth $112,225 with a $10,326 stipend as minority party spokesman.
Those totals include annual base salary, stipends, health insurance, dental insurance, mileage reimbursements, per diem payments and pension contributions.
At least one lawmaker wants to rein in those pension costs and make legislative salaries dependent on passing a balanced budget.
“We should completely eliminate legislative pensions,” said state Rep. David McSweeney, R-Barrington Hills. “I was elected in 2012 and I signed documents to refuse a legislative pension. It is a part-time job, and my view is it should be eliminated going forward.”
McSweeney said the appropriation to keep the pension fund solvent every year has merely postponed the inevitable.
“We’ve not only kicked the can down the road,” he said, “we’ve kicked the can into orbit.”
Members who serve 20 years or more earn pension benefits equal to 85 percent of their final salary, even though the General Assembly Retirement System is funded at just 16 percent of the level needed to cover its liabilities. That pension is guaranteed, and the average retired member with at least 20 years of service receives $96,000 a year.
“What that means is the taxpayers are bailing it out with massive payments every year to keep it afloat,” Dabrowski said. “The average career legislator gets $2 million in pension benefits [over a lifetime].”
The report’s authors urge lawmakers to rein in those costs and end what the authors call special treatment for lawmakers.
“Illinois lawmakers should repeal a law they passed in 2014 that guarantees payment of their salaries,” according to the report. “Politicians should not have their salaries protected while state workers, vendors and providers of vital core services enjoy no such guarantees.”
Illinois lawmakers’ base salary for working legislative sessions that typically run from January through May, is more than twice the state’s per capita income of $30,019, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Illinois lawmakers trail only California, New York, Michigan and Pennsylvania in salary, and earn well over twice what their counterparts in Florida make ($29,697 a year) and about nine times what Texas legislators are paid ($7,200 a year).
The report calls on the state to pass reforms immediately, including instituting a defined-contribution retirement plan, along the same lines as the plan in which many state university workers have enrolled.
“It gives them an incentive to become a career politician,” Dabrowski said. “It’s meant to be a part-time job.”