Illinois Democrats Sue to Get Paid During Budget Crisis

CHICAGO (CN) – A group of Democratic members of the Illinois General Assembly sued the state comptroller on Friday to force her to pay their salaries that have been withheld since May due to a lengthy budget crisis.

Leslie Munger, a Republican appointed by Gov. Bruce Rauner after the death of former Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka, announced in April that the salaries of state legislators would be added to Illinois’ stack of unpaid bills.

Rauner has been battling lawmakers, led by entrenched Democrat House Speaker Michael Madigan, for more than a year over what they say are extreme budget cuts.

Illinois did not have a budget passed for the 2016 fiscal year, but stopgap measures were passed in June to see the state through the end of the year. That will keep public schools and some other services going, but neither side seems ready to give in and the state faces a $10.4 billion backlog on payments.

The 177 General Assembly members, along with six constitutional officers, represent a total of $15.6 million in salaries each year.

Admitting that the move was meant to put pressure on the General Assembly to cave to Rauner’s budget proposal, Munger said, “I am hoping that this will help everyone understand what it feels like, really, to be among the group of people who are waiting months for payment.”

Munger introduced legislation in August that would make her solution permanent, requiring that a “balanced budget” be passed before officers and legislators get paid.

Friday’s lawsuit, filed in Cook County Circuit Court, says the comptroller “is attempting to force the General Assembly to forgo representing the interests of their constituents and accede to the policy preferences of an executive office that has no formal role in the legislative process.”

If allowed to hold their salaries hostage, the Democratic lawmakers say, “future comptrollers could refuse payment until any policy demands are met to the comptroller’s satisfaction.”

The Illinois Constitution mandates that members of the General Assembly are paid a salary and prohibits any changes to the salary during their terms, according to the lawsuit.

“Protecting the judicial or legislative branches of government from unwarranted intrusion by any executive branch officer is vital to preserving the separation of powers,” the complaint states.

The plaintiffs include Reps. Emanuel Chris Welch, Elizabeth Hernandez, Sylvana Tabares, Mary E. Flowers, Katherine Cloonan and Sonya M. Harper.

They are asking for an order that the comptroller must pay their salaries in full and on time. They’re represented by Michael Kasper, general counsel for the Illinois Democratic Party.

Susana Mendoza, a Democrat who served for a decade in the General Assembly and as Chicago City Clerk, beat out Munger in the November election and was sworn in as the new comptroller on Monday.

The comptroller’s office did not respond Monday to a request for comment from Courthouse News.