All play and no work — yet legislators still draw paychecks, policy pro argues
Lawmakers have spent very little time in their seats, but at least they got to have play time, Austin Berg wrote on the Illinois Policy Institute website recently.
Berg argued that it's hard to justify legislators accepting paychecks despite sitting in session for only six hours so far in May and holding infrequent meetings of appropriations committees.
"Meanwhile, the House has spent hours playing softball and basketball against the Senate," he wrote. "The House vs. Senate basketball game took place May 15. State lawmakers then took to the diamond for the House vs. Senate softball game May 17."
Illinois has not had a full-year budget in two years, leading to a growing backlog of unpaid bills that a recent state comptroller report put at an excess of $14 billion. Despite the mounting financial pressures that the state faces because of the General Assembly’s inability to compromise on a budget deal, several Democratic lawmakers argued in court that they should be paid immediately, Berg wrote.
They won that case in late March, and while Attorney General Lisa Madigan has filed an appeal, Comptroller Susana Mendoza has issued payments to lawmakers ahead of paying vendors and social services providers. Lawmakers have received paychecks for a minimum of $50,800, and those serving in leadership positions on committees have received even more. The House’s legislative leaders -- Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago) and House Minority Leader Jim Durkin (R-Western Springs) – have received $71,484.
“Illinois state lawmakers are taking paychecks despite not passing a budget for nearly 700 days,” Berg wrote. “One might assume they’d be working around the clock to earn them.”
The cancellation of a session on May 12 was greeted with cheers when announced, he wrote.
Berg acknowledged that the majority of the work on appropriations legislation is handled in committees, but these committees have also not been meeting with the urgency one would expect.
Determining the entirety of Illinois’ spending is a complex task that is broken down into several appropriations committees in the House. The Appropriations General Services Committee has met just twice in the past 20 days, while the Appropriations Elementary and Secondary Education Committee has met twice in almost 50 days, according to Berg.
Despite the snail's pace of work, representatives still earn at least $68,000 per year, which frequently balloons to more than $100,000 per year thanks to bonuses, health and dental insurance, mileage reimbursements, per-diem payments and pension costs, Berg said. This is further compounded by the additional taxpayer money directed toward the General Assembly Retirement System, which in fiscal year 2017 will require $21.7 million from the state and just $1.28 million from lawmakers, according to a January 2016 report from the institute.
“Taxpayers pay once for politicians’ salaries and another 1.5 times for their bankrupt pension system,” Berg wrote. “Taxpayers will contribute the equivalent of nearly $123,000 for each lawmaker in 2017 just to keep the General Assembly Retirement System afloat. State lawmakers have refused to reform their retirement plans.”
If the General Assembly does not have a budget in place by May 31, Berg believes the chances of getting one through in a special session are not good, as the passage requirement would shift from a simple majority to a three-fifths majority.
“Most Illinoisans would love to have the work schedule of their elected officials,” Berg wrote. “Many would love to be working at all – the Land of Lincoln still has 146,000 fewer people working compared with before the Great Recession, an economic sickness that demands legislative action. But state lawmakers have better things to do.”
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