Gov. Pat Quinn moved to halt Illinois lawmakers' pay Wednesday, following through on his warning of consequences if they failed to come up with a solution to the state's nearly $100 billion pension crisis, the worst of any state nationwide.
The Chicago Democrat said he would use his line-item veto power in a budget bill that's on his desk, also vowing to not accept a salary himself until a deal has been reached. Lawmakers would have to vote to reject his changes if they want to get paid.
Quinn, who has made pension reform his main focus for nearly two years, said he wanted to spur lawmakers into action.
"They must have that alarm bell ringing in their ears and the best way to do that is to hit them in the wallet," he said at a news conference in downtown Chicago.
Illinois has nearly $100 billion in unfunded pension liability because lawmakers either skipped or shorted payments to the state's five retirement systems for decades. Inaction on solving the problem has led to repeated credit rating downgrades while governors from other states have used it as a basis to poach jobs from Illinois.
The budget bill on Quinn's desk gives the Illinois comptroller the ability to issue paychecks to state employees.
Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka released a statement saying the governor’s action raises legal questions and she has requested a legal review be done to see if it’s constitutional. She said there’s a clause in the state constitution stating, ‘that 'changes in the salary of a member shall not take effect during the term for which he has been elected.'
Lawmakers in the General Assembly make nearly $68,000 a year with some getting additional money for leadership positions. Quinn earns $177,500 a year.
The governor set numerous hard deadlines, including two special sessions, for lawmakers to resolve the crisis, but none have produced any results. Members of a bipartisan panel charged with finding a compromise blew past another deadline Tuesday. Quinn had warned there would be consequences for lawmakers although he had not outlined what he planned to do.
"I've tried everything in the book to get their attention," he said. "But it's time now for the legislature to legislate."
The lawmakers' next pay checks are due at the end of July, so if they don't act by then they won't get paid.
Quinn said Illinois taxpayers have paid for legislators' lack of action on the pension crisis. Taxpayers had to pay at least $130 million extra in interest payments for a bond sale last month because of the lowered credit ratings.
"I think the taxpayers are on my side here," Quinn said.
Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan says he understands Gov. Pat Quinn's frustration in cutting lawmakers salaries for lack of action on pension reform.
The powerful Chicago Democrat released a statement Wednesday saying he is "hopeful" Quinn's strategy works.
Madigan says he warned his House Democrats during the spring session that "doing nothing or passing only a half-measure" was not an answer. He and Senate President John Cullerton passed separate pension plans out of their chambers which didn't get approval from the opposite house.
But Senate President John Cullerton criticized Quinn’s decision, saying in a statement, "responsible leaders know that unworkable demands will only delay progress."
WBEZ's Tony Arnold contributed to this report. Follow him @tonyjarnold