Jim Dey: Unseemly? Inappropriate? So what else is new?

Jim Dey: Unseemly? Inappropriate? So what else is new?

Some people, to make ends meet, have to sing for their supper. Illinois legislators, faced with a similar challenge, have to file suit for their salaries.

At least that's what happened this week when House Speaker Michael Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton asked a Cook County judge to declare unconstitutional Gov. Pat Quinn's decision to withhold legislators' salaries.

The first missed legislative payday was Aug. 1, and, while Madigan and Cullerton were quick to say the lawsuit wasn't about the money, everyone knows that when people say it's not about the money it's always about the money.

"This matter is of fundamental constitutional importance, as Gov. Quinn's action threatens the independence of each branch of government. The Illinois Constitution protects the salaries of members of the judiciary, the legislature and executive branch," Madigan and Cullerton said in a joint statement.

Quinn's response, characterizing legislators as greedy, reptilian figures, was quick.

"If legislators had put forth the same effort to draw up a pension reform agreement that they did in crafting this lawsuit, pension reform could have been done by now," he said.

This controversy really is much ado about nothing; it's hardly even a problem, in the context of real problems, let alone a threat to the constitution.

But perceptions matter to politicians; that's why legislators don't want to solve it themselves. Instead, they prefer to cast themselves as victims of the evil Quinn.

Quinn is nothing if not inventive when it comes to riding a wave of populist fever. That's how he made his bones in Illinois politics, casting himself as the fearless leader of the little guy in a fight with business-as-usual politicos.

That being said, he's not without justification in his declaration of a salary war with members of the Illinois House and Senate.

Anybody who's been paying attention knows that Illinois is in dire straits. Its finances are a disaster across the board, particularly the state's underfunded public pension systems. Quinn has pleaded with legislators for months to take action, only to be repeatedly ignored, demeaned and insulted.

But he also has a political problem; Quinn is running for re-election and has a renomination fight on his hands with prominent Chicago Democrat William Daley, the son and brother of Chicago's two Mayor Daleys and a pillar of the establishment.

So Quinn decided to kill two birds with one stone; he announced that he'll block appropriations for legislative salaries until legislators act on the pension problem. Recognizing that the General Assembly is, collectively, unpopular with the public, Quinn found a way to cast himself with the public as a man unafraid to say no to slacker legislators who prefer to fiddle while the state burns.

From his perspective, what is there to lose? Legislators hate him, and he hates them. But he may get action on pensions from legislators, not necessarily because of the salary denial, and at the same time get a bump in public approval.

Conveniently for Quinn, this standoff comes at the beginning of a new budget year for 2013-14, allowing him to veto appropriations covering legislative salaries.

It's a stark constitutional fact that the governor has veto power; Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka acknowledged the legitimacy of his action when she announced that her office would not be issuing legislators' paychecks.

Of course, all legislators have to do to reverse Quinn's action is gather and override his veto.

He can veto; they can override his veto.

There's no need to drag some judge into the dispute. But legislators don't wish to be perceived as the selfish and self-serving swine most of them are. Hence, the court gambit, which is not necessarily a foolish decision because most Chicago judges got to be judges by virtue of being acceptable to the city's Democratic Party establishment reflected by Madigan and Cullerton.

Oh, it's a fine kettle of rotten fish that dominates politics in Illinois.

Some in the hoity-toity set are appalled by Quinn's action; the sheer effrontery of it is almost too much for them to bear.

Writing in The News-Gazette, state Rep. Chad Hays of Catlin expressed outrage at the gall of it all.

"The precedent that this type of blackmail represents is reprehensible and has no place in the governance model held up as the gold standard around the world," Hays said.

Democracy is not the gold standard; Winston Churchill once described it as the worst form of government, except for all the others. More specifically, democracy in Illinois is about as ugly and dysfunctional as it gets.

This is a state whose official policy is not to pay its bills for services rendered. This is a state where legislators made a conscious decision not to fund its public pensions because they wanted to spend the money elsewhere. This is a state that spends money it doesn't have and routinely increases its budgetary spending in the face of mind-boggling debt and deficits.

Hey, this is Illinois, a seemingly irredeemable political sewer. Quinn's conduct is just another walk through a political park.

Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached by email at jdey@news-gazette.com or at 351-5369.

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