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Judge should rule Quinn was wrong to suspend legislators’ pay: Brown

Updated: October 20, 2013 7:46AM

Gov. Pat Quinn’s bad idea to suspend legislators’ pay to prod them to fix the state’s pension problem is not only popular with voters but a close enough legal call that a Cook County judge says he still hasn’t made up his mind on how to rule.

Associate Circuit Judge Neil Cohen picked apart the soft spots in both sides’ legal arguments Wednesday during a two-hour hearing into a lawsuit brought against the governor by House Speaker Mike Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton.

In the end, Cohen urged that nobody read too much into his questioning and promised to issue a ruling by Sept. 26. If it’s as close a call as Cohen seemed to suggest, then we can surely expect the losing party to appeal whatever decision he reaches.

I realize I’m swimming against the tide on this one, but no matter how Cohen rules, I still contend this was a lousy way of doing business on the governor’s part.

Even if it turns out it was legal under current Illinois law for Quinn to amendatorily veto lawmakers’ salaries for their failure to act on pensions, it shouldn’t be.

As lawyers for Madigan and Cullerton argued in court, we don’t need this governor or future governors using the threat of taking away their pay to coerce legislators to bend to their will. If that’s legal, then we’re going to need to enact a law to keep it from being so.

Nobody would have tolerated it from Rod Blagojevich, and nobody would have tolerated it over most any other issue of public policy if their own view differed from the governor’s. In this case, everybody’s for pension reform — until there’s a proposal on the table, and they figure out how it affects them personally.

The only reason this salary suspension is popular is that there are a lot of folks who just plain like the idea of taking away legislators’ pay — no matter the reason.

I hear people say the governor had to do this because the legislators “aren’t doing their job.”

The problem with that is that the governor doesn’t get to decide when legislators aren’t doing their job. That’s up to the residents of each legislator’s district, and they have numerous avenues available to express their dissatisfaction, all of which lead to the voting booth.

While the governor is clearly reveling in the political success of his maneuver and how it has revived his populist credentials, I don’t doubt that it also serves what he sees as a primary purpose of forcing legislators to deal with the pension problem.

As this drags out, there’s no denying it will put pressure on legislators to act. Some of them will need the money. They’ve missed two monthly paychecks so far.

But what if they pass a pension bill the governor doesn’t like? Will they have they “done their jobs” then — or only when the governor is satisfied?

For the second time, Quinn took the unusual step of showing up in court Wednesday to personally witness the proceedings, yet another indication he’s going to ride this pony as far as it will take him.

The governor hasn’t had an easy time finding ways to make the public like him, and having found one, he’s not letting go of it any time soon.

Although he took a seat in the back, the governor’s fashionably late arrival — 30 minutes into the proceedings — certainly could not have been missed by the judge.

This time, though, the governor slipped out a back door of the courtroom so as to avoid reporters waiting to interview him, which I suppose he thought would indicate he was there out of genuine interest rather than getting more publicity. You can judge that for yourself.

The legal case revolves around two conflicting constitutional provisions, one that says the governor may “veto any item of appropriations in a bill presented to him” and another that prohibits mid-term “changes” in legislators’ salaries.

Quinn’s lawyers argue the case is “not ripe” for court consideration because lawmakers still have the option of overriding his veto.

This is the truly diabolical part of Quinn’s game of “Gotcha!”

He knows that legislators don’t want to take that vote and risk having it used against them in an election. In fact, many legislators would no doubt vote against restoring their pay — while privately urging Madigan and Cullerton to proceed with their lawsuit.

If it was unconstitutional for Quinn to strip legislators’ pay, then they shouldn’t be responsible for undoing the damage.


Twitter: @MarkBrownCST

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