Susana Mendoza: Some lawmakers want to claw back raises they declined. That is unfair to taxpayers.

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Say a state senator votes to decline pay raises and issues news releases boasting that he voted against those pay raises because he cares about the voters and wants them to reelect him.

Years after that state senator leaves the General Assembly, should he be able to sue me to turn over $71,000 of your tax money to him because the lawyer/legislator (now judge) did not know his vote was violating the Illinois Constitution, which says lawmaker pay cannot be changed during a two-year period?

I say “No!” on several levels.

Central to the case the Illinois Supreme Court will hear is whether a change is a change.

The state constitution wisely says, “Changes in the salary of a member shall not take effect during the term for which he has been elected.” They can’t vote themselves a raise — other than perhaps a cost-of-living adjustment. The governor can’t cut their pay. Legislative pay hikes they vote for apply to the next legislature.

But former state Sens. Michael Noland and James Clayborne say in their lawsuit against me that those cost-of-living increases, which they now say they should have voted for and which would have boosted their pay midsession, were expected, so they were not “changes.” Whereas their votes to leave their salaries exactly the same, denying themselves raises — that absence of change was a “change” that offends the state constitution.

Could you make sense of that?

Neither could I.

Only an Illinois state legislator or the lower court that ruled for Noland could find sense in that. If you’re like the rest of us, you can see there was nothing “unconstitutional” about Noland and Clayborne voting of their own free will to decline those raises and then to campaign for reelection on their self-sacrificing votes.

They did not sue themselves for casting what they now believe to be the wrong vote against accepting a raise. They sued me — and, by extension, you the taxpayer.

The justices of the Illinois Supreme Court have several issues before them in oral arguments, beyond the central question of whether a change is a change:

• If state taxpayers must fork over money to the former legislators, how many years are covered by their ruling? All the way back to 2009? Earlier?

• Does their tardiness in waiting so many years after they declined their raises and then left office before they filed their suit mean they waived their right to sue?

• Noland and Clayborne filed for themselves, not as a class action. Must taxpayers just pay them $167,000? Or must you pay $14.4 million or more to cover every current and former legislator who ever declined a raise? Former Rep. Michael Fortner has filed a class-action suit seeking this money for all current and former legislators pending the outcome of this case.

Don’t mistake this as a partisan issue. Legislators from both parties are trying to claw back raises they voted to decline. There are many good, conscientious legislators in Springfield who are not part of this effort.

But stunts like this make it even harder for us to restore your trust in government, which has been so strained by examples of some elected officials placing their own wants ahead of the needs of the citizens.

This is not for the seven justices who have read all the briefs on both sides and will hear oral argument and rule on their interpretation of the law. This is to inform you, the taxpayers of Illinois, who will ultimately foot the bill for whatever is decided.

As of this July 1, the base salary for an Illinois legislator is $72,906 a year. The median household income in Illinois is $68,000. There is a strong argument to be made for paying legislators — most of them college graduates who can and often do earn higher salaries in the private sector — a salary high enough that they are not tempted to compromise their ethics in the company of lobbyists and others who earn far higher salaries than they do.

But legislators sign on for a job representing their constituents at a set salary for the term in which they serve. They should not try to renegotiate that contract after the fact.

Susana Mendoza is state comptroller of Illinois.

Submit a letter, of no more than 400 words, to the editor here or email letters@chicagotribune.com.

via Chicago Tribune

May 9, 2022 at 07:12AM

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