In the closing weeks of the legislative session in Springfield, Illinois lawmakers were proposing all kinds of questions to go before voters on the November ballot, from raising the minimum wage to taxing millionaires.
Here’s a potential for a referendum that we didn’t hear come up: Do state lawmakers deserve a pay raise?
If Democrats are indeed guilty of pushing to populate the ballot with questions to drive voter turnout, this one could draw voters in droves.
Even as Gov. Pat Quinn criticized lawmakers for sending him “an incomplete budget that does not pay down the bills but instead postpones the tough decisions,” lawmakers voted to restore a self-imposed pay cut they instituted in 2011.
Because our economy is doing so much better?
Because they’re doing such great work?
Well, Springfield never pretended to be a meritocracy.
The language that adds about $3,000 to lawmakers’ base salary, which is in the ballpark of $75,000, was tucked into one of two budget bills. Some lawmakers insisted it isn’t a pay raise but merely giving back what they volunteered to sacrifice. Others may look at more money one year compared to the previous as a raise in pay.
Some lawmakers, including state Sen. Mike Frerichs, D-Champaign, say they voted in favor of the budget but will donate the de facto raise to charity.
Some just voted against the whole package.
“It’s not balanced and it’s based on imaginary revenues and borrowed monies. I don’t believe it’s constitutional,” said state Rep. Jack Franks, D-Marengo, who voted against the bill. “We pat ourselves on the back and restore the pay cut? I thought it was inappropriate. I think when the taxpayers feel it, we ought to feel it too — to keep us grounded.”
It’s worth pointing out that most state lawmakers don’t bring in the same kind of haul as other elected officials. Chicago aldermen have salaries hovering above $100,000 annually. Cook County commissioners are paid $85,000 a year.
House Republican Leader Jim Durkin, R-Western Springs, remains frustrated by a budget bill awash in what he called pork projects used to entice floor votes. He opposed a pay raise as well, saying he voted in favor of giving lawmakers furlough days in 2011 as a sign of good faith to voters who may also have faced their own downturn in economic circumstances.
“There were a lot of things thrown into this bill. All sorts of gimmicks, pork projects,” said Durkin, who voted against the budget.
Durkin accused Democrats of putting millions of dollars in last-minute spending to entice votes, including throwing in funding for an Uptown theater, the Puerto Rican Cultural Center and a West Side school.
What? Wait, what about all the looming cuts we have been hearing about if the income tax increase wasn’t extended — and it wasn’t.
“That’s just how it works,” Durkin said. “This is Springfield.”
The pay raise, he said, was tucked into one of the two budget bills, “along with the discretionary spending, and that justifies raiding dedicated funds to the tune of $650 million to plug in a hole in the budget.
“But that’s money that needs to be paid back next year. It does what they want for the moment, but it digs a deeper hole next year,” Durkin said, adding sarcastically: “I sense a pattern.”
Taking all of that into account, do lawmakers deserve higher pay this year?
The question will never make it onto the ballot.
They already know what your answer will be.