By Kim Geiger and Monique Garcia
Illinois Comptroller Leslie Geissler Munger plans to delay monthly paychecks for lawmakers and statewide officials, saying there isn't enough money to pay the state's bills and other services should come first.
The comptroller's office will still process the paychecks, estimated at $1.3 million a month, but lawmakers won't get the money right away because the payments will be thrown onto the state's huge pile of unpaid bills.
Munger acknowledged the idea is to apply pocketbook political pressure to lawmakers to spur a resolution to the 10-month budget fight between Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner and Democrats led by House Speaker Michael Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton. She argued that lawmakers' paychecks are taking away money from nonprofit social service providers and small businesses who have seen their payments delayed during the impasse.
"I am hoping that this will help everyone understand what it feels like, really, to be among the group of people who are waiting months for payment," said Munger, a Lincolnshire Republican, at a rare Sunday morning news conference in Chicago.
The money is a drop in the bucket when compared with the state's $6 billion deficit, but the move is seen as shrewd politics.
Munger, appointed by Rauner after the December 2014 death of Judy Baar Topinka, faces a special election in November against Democrat Susana Mendoza, the Chicago city clerk. Neither candidate is well-known statewide, and the contest is low profile in a presidential election year. Munger's decision on lawmakers' paychecks gets her name out there in a populist way.
Mendoza blasted the decision as "10 months late and many dollars short."
"Yes, we should not pay elected officials where possible before paying more urgent bills, but when is Comptroller Munger going to stand up to Gov. Rauner and demand an end to his extreme agenda and pass a budget?" Mendoza asked in a statement emailed by her campaign.
Currently, there is a delay of at least two months on most invoices at the comptroller's office as the state is racking up bills without enough money to cover the costs. That's the result of a mix of court orders and existing laws that have allowed state government to operate almost as normal even though Rauner and lawmakers haven't agreed on a full tax-and-spending plan. Rank-and-file state workers are being paid by court order, and lawmaker salaries are being paid because they're written into law.
Until now, paychecks for state workers and lawmakers have been going out on time, but Munger contended it's unfair for elected officials to receive their salaries on time while others who provide services for the state have to wait.
"I do not relish taking this action," Munger said. "Many of our leaders are true public servants who care about their constituents and their communities, and they are earning their pay. But so are the many organizations and businesses all throughout Illinois who have, in good faith, provided services to the state but still wait months for payment."
Munger also is trying to distance herself from the blame game of the budget stalemate, which is expected to loom large in the upcoming election. Both Rauner and Democratic leaders generally agree that it will take a mixture of spending cuts and new taxes to balance the state's books. But before getting there, Rauner wants Democrats to help him pass his pro-business, union-weakening legislative agenda, which they've refused to do.
Both sides are making a political calculation that voters will side with them in November House and Senate contests, leaving little incentive for a compromise in the meantime.
On Sunday, Munger insisted she had not consulted Rauner, his staff or Republican leaders in the legislature before making the decision. She acknowledged the political implications of holding up lawmaker pay while casting herself as a defender of the ordinary people who've been hurt by Springfield politics.
"It all adds up, and that $1.3 million can mean a lot to a nonprofit," Munger said. "It may prevent some from being laid off or keep a critical community program going. It could mean a lot to the small business providing services to the state that has been waiting months and months for payment."
It's not the first time legislators have seen their pay targeted amid political gridlock, and the move undoubtedly will bring up legal questions about the separation of executive and legislative powers.
In July 2013, Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn used his veto powers to eliminate lawmakers' pay from the state's annual spending plan to try to force action on a plan to overhaul the state's employee pension plan. Democratic legislative leaders sued, and lawmakers went two months without salary before a judge ruled the move was unconstitutional and the comptroller eventually had to cut the checks.
Munger contends that her decision is different, because she'll still be processing the paychecks, but instead of cutting the checks immediately, she'll add them to the pile of unpaid bills, which get paid on a delay. Munger said her attorneys came up with a legal opinion late last week that approved the move, but her staff refused to produce a copy of the opinion when the Tribune asked for it.
The comptroller estimated that elected officials, whose next paycheck is due on April 30, will have to wait until May or June for their April pay. But she also warned that the delay in paying bills "will grow dramatically" in the summer and fall months, when tax collections are down. April is the peak month for tax collections, and still the state has an $8 billion bill backlog, Munger said.
The delay will also apply to statewide office holders, including the treasurer, secretary of state, lieutenant governor and Munger herself, she said. Rauner, a wealthy private equity specialist who campaigned on a pledge to serve as governor for free, does not collect a salary.
The 177 legislators receive a base salary of $67,836, but most earn thousands more in stipends by serving in Democratic or Republican leadership positions, or acting as chairman or vice chairman of legislative committees.
Serving in the House or Senate is a part-time job, with lawmakers typically in session a few days a week from January through May, and again for a couple of weeks in the fall. For some legislators, the state salary is their primary or only source of income, which means not getting paid is a financial hardship that turns up the pressure to get a budget resolution. Other lawmakers, including many of the legislative leaders, have lucrative law practices, other jobs or financially successful spouses.
Madigan, for example, has a law firm that specializes in Cook County property tax appeals. Cullerton is a partner at the Thompson Coburn law firm. House Republican leader Jim Durkin is a partner at Arnstein & Lehr. Spokesmen for the two Democratic leaders would not comment on Munger's decision.
Rank-and-file lawmakers could feel the squeeze, which might create pressure for movement on the budget issue at the statehouse.
Democratic state Sen. Michael Noland of Elgin is an attorney who pulled in about $76,000 from the state and $10,000 from his law practice in 2014, according to financial disclosure forms from a bid for Congress. That year, Noland cited "financial hardship" when he modified his mortgage through a federal program that helps homeowners reduce monthly payments and avoid foreclosure. Noland told the Tribune earlier this year that his family had struggled financially after the pay freeze episode with Quinn.
Chicago Tribune's Monique Garcia reported from Springfield.
(c)2016 the Chicago Tribune