Dealt a loss in his attempt to wipe out lawmakers' paychecks, Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn will try to put the ruling on ice Friday as he attempts to kick up to the Illinois Supreme Court the legal question of whether his move was constitutional.
Those efforts were complicated by Republican Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka's decision to send money electronically overnight to lawmakers' bank accounts for the checks they missed in August and September while the dispute played out in rounds of legal briefs and hearings.
The scramble that unfolded after a Cook County judge's ruling Thursday afternoon added to the monthslong dysfunction of a state government that has been unable to bring Illinois back to financial solvency by fixing a worst-in-the-nation public worker pension debt.
Quinn vetoed lawmakers' salaries out of the state budget in July, saying they were being suspended until the legislature sent him a pension reform plan. House Speaker Michael Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton sued, contending the governor was overstepping his constitutional authority.
The paycheck move represented a political calculation by the re-election-seeking Quinn that the public wouldn't have much sympathy for lawmakers who he argued weren't dealing with the state's most pressing issue. The governor hit that note again Thursday.
"I will not accept a paycheck until a comprehensive pension reform bill is on my desk and neither should legislators," Quinn said in a statement. "Nobody in Springfield should get paid until the pension reform job gets done."
While Quinn's effort may play well with voters, his decision to take the case to the state's highest court could further the animosity between the Democratic governor and the Democrat-controlled General Assembly.
"I think it's ill-advised," state Sen. Kwame Raoul, D-Chicago, said of Quinn's decision to appeal. "In a larger picture, in order to get things done, to get things done on behalf of the taxpayers, the governor and the legislature have to work together and have got to avoid being divisive."
Raoul, who chairs a 10-member legislative panel charged with putting together a plan to deal with the state's pension issue, said the committee was unaffected by the salary issue and moving closer to unveiling a proposal.
Judge Neil Cohen's ruling came a week after teams of lawyers argued for two hours over whether Quinn had the constitutional ability to use his budget veto powers to line out legislative paychecks in an effort to get lawmakers to accede to his will.
In a case with high-stakes interest over the separation of powers between the executive and legislative branches of state government, Cohen's ruling was much more narrowly focused on a provision of the state constitution that prohibits "changes" in the pay of legislators during their elected terms.
Attorneys for Quinn had argued that the framers of the state's 1970 constitution added the provision to prevent legislators from voting to increase their pay while they were serving. But Cohen said a plain reading of the word "changes" means the constitution prohibits increases or decreases in pay.
"In exercising his line-item veto to change the salaries of the General Assembly members during the terms in which they were elected, the governor violated … the Illinois Constitution," Cohen wrote. "Therefore, the governor's line-item veto of (the budget bill containing legislative salaries) was constitutionally void and of no effect."
Cohen also rejected arguments from Quinn's attorneys that legislators shouldn't have filed suit while they had the chance to override the governor's veto of their pay. In addition, the judge rejected arguments from Cullerton and Madigan's attorneys that the way Quinn used his veto pen still left intact the money needed to pay their salaries.
Quinn's attorneys quickly filed for a stay of Cohen's ruling, which also ordered paychecks to be awarded to lawmakers plus interest, pending appeal. The ruling did not say how much interest lawmakers should get, however.
A hearing could take place Friday morning, but it might come too late to stop at least two months of legislators' back pay. Comptroller Topinka said processing of paychecks began after Cohen's order and that the missed checks would be received by lawmakers electronically overnight.
Quinn spokeswoman Brooke Anderson criticized Topinka, contending the comptroller's "enthusiasm to hand out paychecks to legislators appears to exceed her interest in public pension reform."
But a Topinka aide said the comptroller's office was only complying with Cohen's order, which required her to issue checks "immediately."
The rush to award paychecks to legislators before a stay may be granted could create political problems for Topinka as she seeks re-election against Democrat Sheila Simon, currently the state's lieutenant governor.
Senate President Cullerton hailed Cohen's ruling as a move to "protect and preserve the separation of powers" between the governor and the legislature.
"Now that the governor's actions have been answered by a court, I trust that we can put aside all distractions and focus on the goal of pension reform," Cullerton said in a statement before Quinn's decision to appeal.
Regardless of the narrow scope of the ruling, Rep. Elaine Nekritz and other lawmakers said it provided a check on how far a governor could go to force the General Assembly to take action on an issue. She was confident the decision would be upheld. Allowing Quinn's action to stand, she said, could lead to a governor vetoing paychecks "at any time over any issue."
"It could be something as polarizing as reproductive rights or gun control, and that's not a way for a deliberative body to make good decisions," said Nekritz, D-Northbrook.
State Sen. Bill Brady, a Bloomington Republican seeking Quinn's job, said an appeal was "foolish on the governor's part and a waste of money."
Brady, who also sits on the conference committee examining pension changes, said he believed Quinn's actions have made reaching agreement on retirement benefit changes for public employees more difficult.
"There's no question in my mind that, when Quinn vetoed the legislative (pay) appropriation, his own party — the Democrats, particularly — were completely alienated and disgusted with what he did," Brady said.
Brady, who lost to Quinn in 2010, is again seeking the GOP nomination for governor in 2014 against state Sen. Kirk Dillard of Hinsdale, state Treasurer Dan Rutherford of Chenoa and Winnetka businessman Bruce Rauner, who said the state needs pension solutions, not "more political stunts."