Although Cook County Judge Neil H. Cohen ruled today that Illinois Governor Pat Quinn had violated the Illinois Constitution when he vetoed the appropriation bill that pays members of the General Assembly in July, the “populist pol” had actually already won. It positioned Quinn as a champion of the people on an issue that was very basic – if the General Assembly could not provide him a workable pension reform bill to sign, was it reasonable to conclude that they were not doing their jobs and should not be paid. Quinn thought so. The General Assembly thought not and the arbiter was Judge Cohen.
Judge Cohen’s ruling mandated that Illinois Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka must pay the state representatives and senators the paychecks they were denied, with interest. Cohen cited Article IV, Section 11 of the Illinois Constitution which prohibits changing the salary of a legislator during their term in office. The key term was “changing” that was the core of Cohen’s decision, emphasizing that “the governor’s line-item veto of House Bill 214 was constitutionally void and of no effect.”
Although Quinn vowed to appeal the Cohen’s decision, victory was his, in some circles, the moment he withheld the legislator’s pay. Letters to the editor in print and on-line throughout Illinois applauded the governor’s bold move. As mentioned in this column, it was an issue a 10-year old could grasp - if you don’t do your job, you shouldn’t be paid. But, in this case, it was a state constitutional issue that over-rode the easy to digest “cause/effect” situation.
Now with the drama over, the most important part of this situation has not changed one bit. When will the Illinois General Assembly pass a bill that will significantly, but legally, reduce the state’s $100 billion pension liability? It’s damaging the state’s bond rating. It’s causing businesses to lose faith in moving to/staying in Illinois and it is eating up funds that could go to education and other critical public services.
So, with all that damage still to be dealt with, to a certain extent, Quinn has probably raised his stature with the common man (or at least with a whole lot of Illinois voters) and added a little zest to his re-election bid as a champion for the people. With that and his very clear path to securing a Primary Election win, Quinn’s Republican competitors for the governor’s mansion should not underestimate him. He lost today, but probably still won.