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Judge: State lawmakers should get paid, even if there’s no budget

State Comptroller Susana Mendoza spoke to the City Club of Chicago Monday afternoon.

State Comptroller Susana Mendoza spoke to the City Club of Chicago Monday afternoon. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

State Comptroller Susana Mendoza said Thursday she will start issuing paychecks to state lawmakers, after a Cook County judge ruled that the law requires legislators get their paychecks even if there is no state budget.

Mendoza has followed her Republican predecessor by withholding paychecks for lawmakers, arguing that because approval of a state budget has been stalled for two years, she is free to decide which of the state’s bills get paid. Four Democratic lawmakers filed a lawsuit last year, contending state law passed in 2014 required them to get their annual salaries of $68,000 no matter what.

In a statement issued after the ruling, Mendoza said she was sending out paychecks grudgingly, and was directing the attorney general to file an appeal.

“I have consistently said that my office would continue to place elected officials’ paychecks at the back of the line to get paid unless a judge ordered me to stop,” Mendoza said in a statement issued about an hour after the ruling by Judge Rodolfo Garcia. “A judge so ordered today.”

Attorney General Lisa Madigan’s office is “reviewing the decision and speaking with the comptroller’s office. We’re aware they are interested in appealing,” said spokeswoman Eileen Boyce.

Former Comptroller Leslie Munger, an appointee of Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner, had cut off lawmaker pay last spring, claiming that she had discretion to choose which bills should be paid if there was no state budget, court order or other legal instruction on where to be paid. Lawmakers were paid in January, under terms of a stop-gap budget, Assistant Attorney General Brent Stratton said.

Munger’s maneuver was intended to pressure lawmakers to act on a budget, in line with Rauner’s Turnaround Agenda priorities, after what was then a year-long impasse between the governor and the Democrat-controlled Legislature. Legislative seats are considered part-time jobs, though lawmakers receive a base salary of around $68,000, which can rise to more than $100,000 thanks to various additional payments for per diems and committee work.

Munger turned “No budget, no pay” into a campaign slogan in her race against Mendoza. Mendoza’s statement also cited her concern that lawmakers should not be paid ahead of state contractors with invoices among the $12 billion backlog of bills on her desk.

“I have always argued that there is a sound policy reason, given the absence of a balanced state budget, to prioritize payments to the state’s most vulnerable — hospice care; child care; meals on wheels for seniors — ahead of paychecks for elected officials,” she said.

Munger, whom Rauner hired as a deputy governor after her defeat, called on Mendoza to file for a stay of the judge’s ruling, pending appeal.

“Rather than immediately releasing all the back pay, the Comptroller should request independent counsel and ask for an immediate stay of the ruling pending her appeal,” Munger said. “The fact the Comptroller didn’t immediately request a stay is further proof that the Comptroller, Attorney General and Speaker Madigan are engaged in a coordinated abuse of taxpayers.”

Asked why the comptroller did not request a stay that would have stalled payments to lawmakers, Mendoza spokesman Abdon Pallasch referred questions to the attorney general’s office. A spokeswoman for Attorney General Lisa Madigan did not respond to questions about whether Mendoza had asked them to pursue a stay whenever the appeal is filed.

The comptroller released lawmakers’ July paychecks this week, and noted legislators had missed seven checks from August to February. Lawmakers’ monthly base salary is $5,653.

In a statement, Republican Party spokesman Steven Yaffe called the legislators’ lawsuit “outrageous” and said the ruling was victory for Democrat House Speaker Michael Madigan, Rauner’s nemesis in the budget stalemate.

“Today’s decision by a Cook County judge to pay lawmakers before social service agencies and the vulnerable is a win for Mike Madigan and a loss for taxpayers and all those who want a balanced budget. Madigan’s long-time lawyer, Mike Kasper, led the lawsuit brought by Madigan-backed lawmakers. It’s outrageous that these politicians think they should be paid before the vulnerable, but that’s how the Madigan machine operates.”

At a hearing last week, Garcia had seemed inclined to let the comptroller continue to hold back paychecks, stating that lawmakers could get their paychecks by passing a budget that included their salaries.

But lawyers for the lawmakers submitted a new petition to force Mendoza to release their salaries, citing a law passed in 2014, after then Gov. Pat Quinn and Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka withheld legislative salaries in a bid to force through changes to the state pension system.

“There are certain expenditures that are outside the discretion” allowed the comptroller, Judge Garcia said. “That includes legislator salaries.”