CHICAGO — — Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn's decision to halt legislators' pay over the state's unprecedented pension crisis is unconstitutional and the Chicago Democrat must move to reinstate salaries immediately, a judge ruled Thursday.
Illinois Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka, whose office is responsible for issuing paychecks to lawmakers, said after the ruling that she had instructed her staff to begin doing so immediately. But Quinn said he planned to appeal to a higher court and would seek a stay of Thursday's ruling.
Cook County Circuit Court Judge Neil Cohen issued his eight-page decision in a lawsuit brought by Chicago Democrats, House Speaker Michael Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton. Lawmakers have missed two paychecks and were set to miss a third next week.
Cohen said Quinn did not have the power to withhold pay while lawmakers were serving their current terms and ordered Topinka to restore salaries with interest.
"(The) Illinois Constitution grants the governor authority to reduce items of appropriation," Cohen wrote. "The governor cannot, however, exercise his authority in a manner which violates another constitutional provision."
Quinn said the issue was about more than his constitutional authority.
"The reason I suspended legislative paychecks in the first place — and refused to accept my own — is because Illinois taxpayers can't afford an endless cycle of promises, excuses, delays and inertia on the most critical challenge of our time," he said in a statement. "Nobody in Springfield should get paid until the pension reform job gets done."
Illinois' public pension systems are the worst-funded of any state in the nation, largely because legislators for years did not make their full annual payments. This year, that payment is about $6 billion — almost one-fifth of the state's general fund budget and an amount that has led to substantial cuts in areas such as education and public safety.