Pretty much everybody is cheering Gov. Pat Quinn for vetoing state legislators’ salaries out of the Illinois budget this week.
Quinn vetoed lawmaker salaries because, he said, he was tired of waiting year after year for legislators to pass a comprehensive pension reform plan.
Probably the only state politicians despised more than Quinn himself these days are legislators, so nobody is weeping for legislators’ personal financial troubles. Quinn, down in the polls and desperate for any kind of “win,” knows this is a sure-fire way to appeal to the populist disgust with the no-can-do General Assembly.
But man, is this ever a dangerous stunt.
Not even Rod Blagojevich at his most insane ever attempted this maneuver. Blagojevich fought the General Assembly tooth and nail, even at one point firing the wife of House Speaker Madigan’s chief of staff.
Blagojevich kept the General Assembly in overtime sessions month after month, fought court battles over his powers to force them to bend to his will, but never had the chutzpah to veto their salaries out of the budget.
That should tell you how extreme this ploy is.
And if this action isn’t eventually repudiated, either by the courts or by the General Assembly, it’ll probably happen again.
Here’s a plausible scenario:
The Illinois Legislature, particularly the House, is pretty divided over abortion rights. So what would happen if a staunchly pro-life governor decided to veto legislative pay until they approved an anti-abortion bill? Maybe the Legislature would override him, but maybe hardcore pro-life forces could stop a veto override motion from reaching the required three-fifths supermajority until a bill was passed.
If you’re pro-life, just reverse the scenario.
This is nothing short of legislative blackmail.
OK, you may be saying, isn’t pension reform a dire emergency worth the risk?
Well, after years of skyrocketing by about a billion dollars a year, state pension payments will rise by about $200 million next year and the year after next. That’s still a lot of money, but nothing like it has been.
Even so, the state can’t afford what it’s paying now, let alone lots more down the road.
So, you’d be right to ask, what if this veto is the only way Quinn could get the General Assembly to act?
For all practical purposes, any bill passed now won’t take effect until July 1 of next year.
So why all the rush to pass a bill that won’t take effect for almost a year? The New York bond rating agencies are screaming for action. And Illinois, with the worst credit rating in the nation, is at their mercy. Getting a law on the books will calm things down.
But there’s something else. Quinn’s budget director recently submitted a list of pension reform “scenarios” to the special legislative committee tasked with coming up with a solution. Nobody knows how much those ideas will save because the actuaries haven’t finished studying them.
It would be just plain stupid to pass a pension-reform bill before anybody even knew what it would save, but Quinn went ahead and vetoed legislator salaries even though his own new plan hadn’t even been vetted.
That’s a bit harsh.
Also, the committee has its own set of pension-reform scenarios which have been sent to the actuaries. Meanwhile, everybody has to wait around and nobody is getting paid.
Everybody is falling for Quinn’s dangerous little stunt because it looks so deliciously justifiable. Careful what you wish for.