Pinocchio, the fictional character whose propensity to prevaricate prompted an ever-protruding proboscis, couldn’t have misstated it any better himself.
“I know most working families in Illinois are not seeing raises this year, so we shouldn’t either.”
So said former Illinois State Sen. Michael Noland in a 2012 press release in which he praised himself for joining fellow legislators in voting to reject scheduled cost-of-living increases and to schedule furlough days.
Taking a salary hit was legislators’ way of standing symbolically with financially hard-pressed Illinois from 2009 to 2016, tough times in which many people struggled to make ends meet.
Noland, however, didn’t mean a word of what he said.
Says who? Says he.
After he left office, Noland, an Elgin Democrat, filed a lawsuit in Cook County Circuit Court asking a judge to order the state comptroller to pay him the money that he voluntarily rejected — an estimated $71,000, according to state Comptroller Susana Mendoza.
Another legislator, former state Sen. James Clayborne, a Belleville Democrat, subsequently joined Noland’s lawsuit. Mendoza’s office estimated that Clayborne could collect $95,000.
Although both men repeatedly voted to reject scheduled pay hikes, a Cook County judge last week ruled in their favor.
Noland’s and Clayborne’s claims of selflessness are irrelevant, mere routine political dishonesty that is meaningless in the face of the Illinois Constitution’s prohibition on lawmakers changing their pay — apparently both up and down — during their terms of office.
The litigation represents a stunning and brazen display of political hypocrisy by former legislators who think they are beyond the reach of voters.
Clayborne certainly is. The 57-year-old lawyer, who is getting $75,000 a year from his legislative pension, is in private practice.
But the 60-year-old Noland might not be. He was elected a Kane County circuit judge in 2018, and he might be hearing more about his deceit when he runs for retention. In addition to his roughly $200,000 judicial salary, Noland is collecting a $30,000-a-year legislative pension for the 10 years he spent in the General Assembly.
In the meantime, however, the pair is being vilified by Mendoza as “shameless grifters” for voting one way in office and suing another way after they left it. She’s asking the attorney general’s office to appeal the trial judge’s decision “so I can continue to defend taxpayers’ interests against this brazen money grab.”
Mendoza’s vitriol may not deter Noland and Clayborne from continuing to go for the gold. But her rhetoric could discourage other legislators who voted against the pay hikes from following the example set by Noland and Clayborne.
In that respect, the trial’s judge ruling wasn’t a total loss for Mendoza.
Judge Allen Walker concluded that because Noland and Clayborne filed their lawsuits as individuals, his ruling applies only to them.
Other legislators or former legislators who wish to cash in on the judge’s decision will have to file their own lawsuit and risk any public opprobrium that goes with it.
If Mendoza has anything to say about it — and she does — that seems guaranteed.
“Taxpayers already paid their salaries and are on the hook for potentially millions of dollars for these two men’s pensions,” she said. “The former senators should end their shameless crusade to take from taxpayers the raises they voted to decline.”
Between 2009 and 2016, legislators repeatedly voted to reject cost-of-living increases.
Their action stands in contrast to former Gov. Pat Quinn’s decision to suspend legislators’ pay in the wake of one of the state’s many cash crunches. In that case, legislators led by former House Speaker Michael Madigan sued to win reinstatement of their pay, and a judge ruled in their favor.
Legislators reinstated their pay increases in 2019, giving themselves a $1,600 raise. They supposedly receive annual salaries of $69,000 a year for their part-time work.
But they have gotten around that limit through some legislative sleight-of-hand. Years ago, they voted for extra pay for legislators in both parties who have leadership posts, stipends that range from roughly $10,000 to $27,000 a year. Roughly 70 percent of House and Senate members receive stipends of one amount or another.
Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 217-393-8251.