By Dan Petrella
A Cook County judge ruled this week that Illinois lawmakers violated the state constitution when they voted to freeze their pay every year from 2009 through 2016.
Tuesday's ruling is the result of a lawsuit filed by two former Democratic state senators, Michael Noland of Elgin and James Clayborne of Belleville, against state Comptroller Susana Mendoza, who controls the state's checkbook. Judge Franklin Valderrama wrote that the Illinois Constitution is "unambiguous" about prohibiting lawmakers from making changes to the pay they receive in their current terms.
"It is undisputed that the effect of the statutes was to alter or change the salaries of members of the General Assembly during their term of office," Valderrama wrote, dismissing Mendoza's argument that the change was constitutional because it was a decrease rather than an increase.
Noland originally filed the lawsuit in 2017, seeking back pay for himself and "all others impacted" by the eight bills lawmakers passed to give up the annual cost-of-living raises they are automatically granted under state law. The lawsuit, which Clayborne joined as a plaintiff last year, also takes issue with unpaid furlough days lawmakers approved for themselves each year from 2009 through 2013.
The judge did not order Mendoza to issue checks to anyone, and he scheduled another hearing in the case for Aug. 7.
Noland, a Kane County judge who served in the state Senate from 2007 through 2017, and Clayborne, an attorney who served from 1995 until this year, issued a written statement Thursday saying they were pleased with the outcome.
"Just as Illinois courts held that the Illinois Constitution prohibits using the salaries of judges and legislators as a political football by the Governor and Comptroller to advance a political agenda, members of the General Assembly cannot cut their own salaries on a mid-term basis to curry favor with voters," the statement said. "It is our hope that the Circuit Court decision will be followed and the impacted legislators will be paid what they are due."
Mendoza in a statement called Valderrama's ruling "complex and unfortunate" and said the lawsuit is Noland's "disgraceful and selfish attempt to vacuum up taxpayer money." Noland voted in favor of at least one of the pay freezes and was quoted speaking in support of the measure in a 2012 statement from the Senate Democratic caucus.
"Noland's case perfectly illustrates why voters don't trust politicians," Mendoza said. "His legislative pension, combined with his new judicial salary and pension, should more than suffice. This is another sad week for Illinois taxpayers."
She vowed to fight the ruling as the case proceeds or in an appeal. Annie Thompson, a spokeswoman for Attorney General Kwame Raoul, said his office is reviewing the decision.
State lawmakers' pay has been the subject of political and court battles for much of the past decade.
Then-Gov. Pat Quinn in 2013 used his line-item veto power to zero out legislators' salaries from the budget during a dispute over changes to state employee pensions. That move was overturned in court in a lawsuit brought by Senate President John Cullerton and House Speaker Michael Madigan, who argued it violated the separation of powers between the executive and legislative branches.
During the state's long-running budget impasse under Gov. Bruce Rauner, then-Comptroller Leslie Munger in 2016 stopped issuing paychecks to lawmakers. A court again sided with lawmakers who sued over the practice, and Mendoza resumed payments in March 2017.
Lawmakers started getting their first raises in more than a decade this month when their base salaries of $67,836 were bumped up by about $1,600 as part of the $40 billion budget Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed in June.
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