By Michael J. Hayes
Much has been said about Gov. Pat Quinn's recent move to suspend the salaries of legislators until they pass pension reform. While some see this as smart politics, others argue it will heighten tensions with legislators whom the governor needs to get important things done for the public.
One thing I know: his action is constitutional.
The governor acted through a line item veto of an appropriations bill. This authority of the governor is clearly laid out in the Illinois Constitution and is not restricted. It certainly does not exclude legislator salaries.
In fact, this authority has been reaffirmed by the Illinois courts, including in Quinn v. Donnewald, a 1985 Illinois Supreme Court case regarding the process for setting salaries of public officials. The court noted in their ruling that legislator salaries must go through the appropriations process, which includes the power of thegovernor to line item veto any appropriation.
In opining about the governor's actions, some have pointed to a provision of the Illinois Constitution that prohibits changes to General Assembly salaries that would take effect during a member's current term. Ironically, this section of the Constitution was intended by the 1970 Constitutional Convention to prevent legislators from giving themselves immediate pay raises.
But the governor's action neither triggered nor violated this section of the Constitution. Acting within his authority to veto appropriations in whole or in part, the governor did not attempt to change the salaries nor did he try to alter the pay structure of the legislative salaries. Quinn simply exercised his ability to temporarily suspend payment to the General Assembly by vetoing that line item. The salary numbers established and set into law remain unchanged and in place.
Lastly, others have argued that the governor's action violates the separation of powers between the legislative and executive branches of government. This is simply not true.Just as the Illinois Constitution gives the governor the authority to line item veto any item of appropriations in a bill, it also gives the General Assembly the authority to override the governor's line item veto.
To deny the governor his veto power would be the real intrusion into the separation of powers, not the reverse.
The governor exercised his constitutional authority, and the General Assembly has the opportunity, if they so wish, to exercise theirs.
Those considering an attempt to restore salaries to legislators by taking it to court may want to revisit their strategy.
Michael J. Hayes is an attorney in Chicago. He worked in the Illinois attorney general's office in the 1970s and '80s and was the attorney of record in the Quinn v. Donnewald case in 1985.