Statehouse
4:43 am
Fri June 6, 2014

Legislator Pay: Too Much or Too Little?

Credit Brian Mackey/WUIS

A state senator and candidate for higher office on Thursday sought some attention for giving up a portion of his pay. This comes after Illinois lawmakers — for the first time in years — did not vote to symbolically cut their own pay. This form of salary self-denial has become popular in Illinois, but its roots are much deeper than that.

The base salary for a member of the Illinois General Assembly is $67,836 a year.

During the Great Recession, when Illinois’ finances were tanking, lawmakers decided to give some of that back.

They passed a law requiring themselves to take unpaid furlough days, one a month, which reduced annual salaries by a bit less than five percent.

This went on for five years. Then, something changed last summer.

“The legislators should not get paid until they enact comprehensive, public pension reform," said Gov. Pat Quinn, who vetoed the money for legislators’ salaries out of the budget, trying to get them to pass a pension overhaul.

The Democratic leaders of the House and Senate sued the governor and won. Cut to this year, and a spokeswoman for the Senate president says having just argued it was unconstitutional for the governor to cut legislative pay, it would be just as unconstitutional for lawmakers to do it to themselves. Hence there was no vote this year on taking those furlough days.

This does not sit well with Rep. Dwight Kay, a Republican from Glen Carbon.

“The state’s broke," Kay says. "We can’t fund our schools. We can’t take care of the most needy. We can’t provide opportunity. So why in the world should we reward ourselves for doing bad work."

Kay points to the fact that Illinois legislators are among the best paid in the country. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, only California, Pennsylvania, New York and Michigan have higher base salaries. Other states are way, way lower, like New Hampshire, where a two-year term will net you a cool $200.

It’s important to keep in mind that this is not only a Republican talking point. Democrats like to get in on the act, too.

Sen. Mike Frerichs, from Champaign, in a video touting his candidacy for state treasurer: “In 2006 I ran for the state Senate, where I led by example by cutting my own pay."

But, as we’ve heard, no one got to cast that vote this year. Frerichs is already taking criticism from his opponent, Republican Rep. Tom Cross of Oswego, for supporting the overall budget. So Frerichs announced he'd donate 12 days’ worth of pay to charity — the amount he would have been furloughed.

What makes this kind of thing so popular? Why do politicians make a big deal of showing that they don’t need their salaries?

“Americans don’t like politicians," Mooney says. "They don’t like government. Going back to throwing the tea in the drink, and et cetera."

Chris Mooney is head of the Institute of Government and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois. He says it benefits most politicians to try to look more like everyday people — people who aren’t seeking this job just because they want a paycheck.

Mooney says this can lead to what he calls a death spiral, where policy makers can’t raise their salaries because it might look bad on a campaign mailer. Believe it or not, he says Illinois was once in the forefront of a push to “professionalize” state legislatures. That involved making sessions longer, hiring more staff, and increasing lawmakers’ pay.

“Look, if you’re only paying them a thousand bucks or something or whatever, (and) they can’t afford to do it, who is going to serve in the state legislature?" Mooney asks. "It’s going to be people that are wealthy, people who are what were called in those days ‘housewives,’ people who are students, and retired people."

It’s also going to be people like House Speaker Michael Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton, both of whom are lawyers in private practice on top of their legislative duties.

As a voter, ask yourself: Just what kind of legislator do I want? Professional? Citizen? Working class or wealthy?

It’s something to keep in mind when you begin to see campaign material attacking legislators for “giving themselves a raise.”