Court should opt out of salary fight

Court should opt out of salary fight

Just because Gov. Pat Quinn cast an ill-advised veto doesn’t mean he doesn’t have the legal authority to do so.

A Cook County judge has set a Thursday deadline for announcing whether Gov. Pat Quinn overstepped his constitutional bounds by vetoing an appropriation for legislative salaries to pressure lawmakers into addressing the state’s public pension woes.

It’s a unique set of facts, one driven by another of Quinn’s populist political ploys. But it ought to be a relatively simple legal issue for Associate Judge Neil Cohen to resolve.

Unless he wants to go looking for trouble, Cohen ought to let the established legislative process go forward.

It goes like this — governors have an unfettered right to issue legislative vetoes, members of the Legislature have an unfettered right to override vetoes. Disputes between the executive and legislative branches are expressly contemplated in the federal and state constitutions, and procedures are in place to resolve them.

House Speaker Michael Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton have made it clear they are unhappy with Quinn’s bullying tactic. So let them call the state House and Senate into action and override Quinn’s veto.

Every member of the House and Senate wants to be paid, so there should be no problem attracting the required three-fifths majority to override Quinn’s veto.

Madigan and Cullerton don’t share that view. They contend that to hold the override vote would be recognizing what they regard as Quinn’s illegitimate action. Their lawyers are arguing that, although it’s unstated, the Illinois Constitution somehow recognizes the issue of legislative salaries to be beyond discussion in terms of the state appropriations process.

At least, that’s what they’re saying for public consumption. Legislators’ real problem is that they don’t want to be seen taking action to reinstate the appropriations for their salaries. Our self-serving legislators fear that voters will think they’re self-serving for protecting their pay while they let the state burn down around them.

In our view, their collective reputation is so bad that it could hardly get worse. But reasonable people can differ on that point.

On one issue, however, there can be no debate. Quinn’s veto of legislative salary appropriations and his promise to deny legislators their generous pay until they act on pensions is an abuse of his authority. A master grandstander, the governor knows the public is even more disgusted with legislators than they are with him. So he’s decided to profit at their expense by suspending their salaries until they act on the pension issue.

From a policy standpoint, Quinn’s action is destructive. From a political standpoint, it’s clever to capitalize on public frustration with our failing state government.

It’s certainly not the first time, and it certainly won’t be the last, that elected officials have played to the gallery by misusing their authority to gain a political advantage.

That said, so what. The override solution is right there for all to see.

On the other hand, if Judge Cohen charges into this mess with an ill-advised intervention he could be opening a legal can of worms, one that might result in more litigation in the future.

Illinois certainly doesn’t need that; it needs to solve its problems, a very small one of which is the current salary face-off between Quinn and Cullerton/Madigan. This case threatens to make a legal mountain out of a legislative molehill if Judge Cohen does anything other than let the combatants slug it out in the arena provided to them.

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