By: Ted Dabrowski and John Klingner
Illinois lawmakers could soon be receiving the nation’s 4th-highest legislative salaries as a result of a lawsuit filed by two former Illinois lawmakers.
Former Sens. Michael Noland of Elgin and James Clayborne of East St. Louis, both Democrats, have sued the state to unwind years of salary freezes they say were unconstitutional. A Cook County court ruled recently that the ex-lawmakers can proceed with their case against the state. State politicians’ cost-of-living increases, commonly known as COLAs, were frozen by the legislature each year from 2009 through 2016. Nolan and Clayborne originally voted for many of those freezes.
If the ex-lawmakers’ lawsuit succeeds, the wage freezes between 2009 and 2016 could be reversed and entitle Illinois’ 177 state lawmakers to years of back pay and raises. And if the “freezes” of the 2017-2019 years are eventually rolled in, the total back pay could cost taxpayers up to $13 million.
The recalculated raises would grow lawmakers’ 2020 salary to more than $81,000, an increase of more than 20 percent compared to their current $67,836 compensation.
Illinois lawmakers’ pay would jump past Michigan to become the fourth-highest paid legislators in the country after California, New York and Pennsylvania, based on 2019 data from Ballotpedia.
The ex-lawmakers’ lawsuit alleges the 2009-2016 COLA freezes are illegal because the state constitution says: “A (legislative) member shall receive a salary and allowances as provided by law, but changes in the salary of a member shall not take effect during the term for which he has been elected.”
Some have interpreted the language above as intending to stop lawmakers from voting themselves a pay hike and benefiting from it in the same term.
But Nolan and Clayborne’s lawsuit argues that the constitution’s language prevents lawmakers from making any changes during their term, including reductions. Judge Franklin Valderrama agreed and called the language blocking salary changes “unambiguous.”
The cost of lawmaker back pay
Wirepoints estimated the cost of lawmakers’ potential back pay by looking at the old rules for lawmaker compensation.
Before the legislature began freezing their salaries in 2009, annual lawmaker raises were based on the ECI (Employment Cost Index) of Wages and Salaries for State and Local Government Workers. Basically, state statue said lawmaker salaries were supposed to grow by the average increase in government salaries across the nation.
From a report by the General Assembly’s Legislative Research Unit:
“In April 1990, the Compensation Review Board provided for automatic annual increases in the salaries of state officers, including legislators, to compensate for intervening inflation. Each salary is to increase by the same percentage as the increase during the last calendar year in the Employment Cost Index, Wages and Salaries for State and Local Government Workers issued by the US Department of Labor – up to a maximum of 5% in any year.”
Assuming the court eventually forces the General Assembly to reinstate those the cost-of-living increases for the entire period, Illinois lawmaker salaries will grow to over $81,600 in 2020.
That could cost taxpayers an additional $13 million in total back pay for lawmakers.
On top of that, taxpayers could also be forced to pay penalty interest on the back pay.
And worst of all, those higher salaries will end up boosting the pension benefits of lawmakers by hundreds of thousands of dollars.
An average career lawmaker retiring in 2020 at age 60 can expect to receive more than $375,000 in additional pension benefits over their retirement if their 2020 salary is boosted to $81,700.
Legislative salaries were already slated to go up next year because the 2020 budget included a controversial $1,600 pay hike for lawmakers. The Senate’s version of the budget bill included a COLA freeze, but that freeze was mysteriously removed in the house version.
The final budget was passed without the freeze, so whether the former lawmaker’s lawsuit prevails or not, Illinois politicians will still receive a pay hike next year.
Incompetence and fiscal crisis
The $13 million in potential backpay for lawmakers – as well as the associated higher pension benefits that come with higher salaries – is a trivial cost in a state that consistently runs deficits in the billions.
But it serves as yet another example of how Illinois politicians’ incompetence and mismanagement have created the nation’s worst fiscal crisis. Lawmakers can’t even figure out how to freeze their own salaries.
Read more about the salaries and benefits Illinois lawmakers grant themselves: