Illinois comptroller delays payments for state officials

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Illinois comptroller Leslie Munger announced that starting at the end of April, payments for Illinois legislators and officials will be delayed due to the state's budget crisis. "It is only appropriate that we all wait in line to receive payment," she said. (Photo courtesy of votemuger.com)

Illinois comptroller Leslie Munger announced that starting at the end of April, payments for Illinois legislators and officials will be delayed due to the state’s budget crisis. “It is only appropriate that we all wait in line to receive payment,” she said. (Photo courtesy of votemuger.com)

Illinois State comptroller Leslie Munger announced that starting next month the paychecks of state lawmakers and state officials, including her own paycheck, would be delayed due to the Illinois state budget crisis. The checks, averaging about $1.3 million a month, will still be processed. However, officials will now have to wait in line with businesses and social service organizations that have yet to receive their money from the state.

Munger acknowledged the decision to delay state officials their checks is a part of her plan to put pressure on lawmakers to come to a solution to the state budget impasse that began 10 months ago. This is definitely a great idea, but it also begs the question: why didn’t this happen 10 months ago?

Ten months ago, the Illinois government needed to create a new budget to manage the almost $6 billion deficit that includes the teachers’ pension program, health services and MAP grants DePaul students depend on to attend school, to name a few. Yet when the dust settled, no new budget had been passed. Gov. Bruce Rauner’s budget plan was full of budget cuts to Medicaid and an unconstitutional pension plan, and the General Assembly’s plan ended up overspending its mark. In the end, they couldn’t find a middle ground.

The situation in Illinois came to a head because the state did not put in the effort to put aside enough money for the pension plans it promised its government workers. A 2012 study conducted by The Pew Trusts concluded that the state funded 45 percent of its pensions and only one-tenth of a percent of its promised retirement health care plan. Another Pew Trust study concluded that in 2013 almost two-thirds of every dollar put into the Illinois pension plan went to paying past years’ debt rather than funding the current year’s pension.

It is also important to keep in mind Rauner receives a $1 salary from the state of Illinois. Because he is so wealthy, he promised voters to wave his $177,412 salary as governor. While this is saving the state money, it certainly doesn’t help him understand the plight of the people affected by the Illinois budget impasse. Munger’s announcement that paychecks will be delayed puts no direct pressure on him in an interesting Catch-22.

It seems too little too late for this plan to come into effect only now after social service programs and businesses have had to cut programs and lay off workers because of the lack of funding. Yet the announcement has garnered support from both Democrats and Republicans, including Sen. Heather Steans (D) of Chicago and Rep. David McSweeney (R).

“Anything that puts pressure on is a good idea. I think it was probably a good idea 10 months ago too,” Steans told the Chicago Tribune.

Next November, Munger is up for special election against Chicago City Clerk Susan Mendoza. Munger was appointed to the state comptroller position by Rauner after the death of Judy Baar Topinka following her reelection in 2014. Mendoza lambasted Munger for the tardiness of her decision.

“Yes, we should not pay elected officials where possible before paying more urgent bills, but when is Comptroller Munger going to stand up to Gov. Rauner and demand an end to his extreme agenda and pass a budget?” Mendoza said in emailed campaign statement.

One must consider the timing of this recent statement as beneficial to Munger’s upcoming campaign. Not to take away from what she did, but candidates have a history of trying to make populist legislature before an upcoming election; barring perhaps the 2016 presidential election that has been very extreme thus far.

“I think a lot of people think it’s a good idea,” Munger told the Chicago Tribune in response to criticism. “Maybe it should have been done sooner. But honestly, I had to make sure that I could do this legally.”

This also is not the first time lawmakers’ salaries have been targeted in order to overhaul  a budget impasse. In 2013, Gov. Pat Quinn used his veto power to cut the $13 million budget for legislative salaries and stipends in order to help speed up the process to resolve Illinois’ public worker pension. Lawmakers went unpaid for two months before a judge declared the veto unconstitutional and the checks were cut.

Munger is still processing the checks. However, they will be held as unpaid bills, and there have been families who have lost jobs as a result of the budget crisis, so it would be hard to argue the lawmakers are the only ones not receiving salaries as a result of the budget impasse. The move is risky as the number and amount of the bills will pile up over the coming months.

This could definitely work, but it depends on how lawmakers react to going unpaid. If history repeats itself, they may try to fight the legislature rather than bending to her will and coming to a budget solution after getting a hit in their wallets. If they chose to fight back, it could put the pressure back on Munger to begin paying the lawmakers again in order to not be blamed for increasing the deficit directly.

Regardless of Munger’s intentions, the idea of suspending pay to lawmakers is a bold move that could end up working.  It’s hard to criticize a move as purely “political” when it is a way to pressure lawmakers to finally come to a solution to the crisis.

Now that Munger has made her decision, it will be hard to back down on her own policy without taking a hit in the polls before her election this November. The lawmakers need to see firsthand what has become of their negligence.